Highly Sensitive Refuge
a highly sensitive child pets a dog

The Special Connection Between Highly Sensitive Kids and Pets

Growing up, my dad never said no to a pet. As a result, my sisters and I ended up with no less than 14 pets at one point. We had everything from rats to birds to frogs to lizards. Perhaps he was a bit nuts letting us have so many pets (sorry Dad), but perhaps — raising three highly sensitive girls on his own — he was on to something.

The research on the benefits of pets is overwhelmingly positive. Companion animals appear to add psychological and physical health benefits to owners, as well as help in many areas of a child’s development. In fact, there are so many positives to owning pets that it’s hard to cover them all in one blog post. Those benefits appear to be even stronger for highly sensitive people (HSPs).

Raising two highly sensitive children myself, I was very interested in how pets benefit this 15 to 20 percent of the population — and I wanted to see what would happen if I gave my girls some pets of their own.

Let’s explore the special connection that highly sensitive children have with animals, and how pets can affect all of us positively. And if you’re a parent considering getting a pet for your sensitive kid, I’ll give you some pointers, based on my own experiences.

Highly Sensitive Children Have a Special Connection to Animals

Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Child, writes that because of their strong empathy and emotional responsiveness, highly sensitive people often enjoy a special connection with animals.

“HSPs speak of having a special relationship with one domesticated species — dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, potbellied pigs — or with their own particular companion animal,” Aron explains. “Being sensitive to the animals around us can benefit them — not just their physical wellbeing but their mental health, too. And it benefits us by connecting us with individuals who are generally sensitive, subtle, discriminating, and loyal to their friends — like most [HSPs].”

In other words, HSPs aren’t just especially close with our pets. Those pets actually have a positive effect on us.

Certain animals are particularly easy to connect with. For example, horses can actually read human facial expressions. Not only that, they will remember your emotional state from earlier in the day and adapt their behavior based on it — you could almost say they have empathy. Meanwhile, research shows that looking into the eyes of a pet dog produces the same feelings of love, and same brain hormones, as feeling love for a human. And owners of cats, birds, and other types of pets know firsthand how each type of animal can bond with its owner in surprisingly deep ways.

This is meaningful for anybody, but it’s especially important for highly sensitive children. For them, the bond with a pet can be a source of support in a world that’s often quite overwhelming. Their pet may even understand them better than other people do!

Seriously? You Want a Pet?

Despite all the benefits, I was initially pretty reluctant to get pets for my girls. For starters, they take a lot of work (some pets more than others). I remember spending hours cleaning out animal cages, tanks, and bedding areas as a kid. All that poop! Ugh.

And then there’s the issue of good animal ownership. I hate seeing animals being mistreated and sometimes, little kids can be just plain nasty. Watching my friend’s preschooler dress her tiny dog in hundreds of plastic necklaces and princess frills and then cart it around making it “dance” is one of my most traumatic memories (at least as far as animals are concerned).

I was worried I’d spend my whole day telling my children off for not being careful enough with their pets. It was stressful enough getting the four year old to be careful with her baby sister, let alone a mouse she could potentially crush by accident.

So I let them get a snail. Actually, three snails.

These are much lower-maintenance creatures. But my daughters loved their snails. They played with them, raced them, fed them, helped clean out the cage, and learned about snails as animals.

And yes — one got squashed. And it was traumatic. But, it was just a snail — and the four year old learned a VERY unforgettable lesson about gentleness. Surprisingly, she also learned about the grieving process.

And that was the other reason I was reluctant to get pets.

Mummy, Do Pets Go to Heaven?

Pets don’t live that long — not even dogs. Inevitably, they die and it’s painful. Highly sensitive people are wired to feel emotions super strongly and so the (many) deaths of my (many) pets lingered as powerful, painful memories. Frankly, I wasn’t sure I could cope with taking my kids through that process.

But after the dropped-snail incident, the four year old seemed to show resilience in the grief process. She cried — loud, dramatic, rolling on the floor crying as only four year olds can, and then announced “I feel better now.” So we progressed from snails to rabbits.

When I discovered one morning before work that one (aptly named Angel) had died, I think I struggled with the idea of telling the kids more than was actually necessary. They were sad. They cried. We buried the rabbit. And they moved on.

As I discovered, if you help them through it, the passing of a pet can actually be a great opportunity for children to learn about the grief process — and that we can and do recover!

For HSPs, this is especially important, because an HSP’s strong emotions can be overwhelming. Highly sensitive children, in particular, need opportunities to learn to manage (but not suppress) their strong emotions and find ways to soothe themselves, like listening to an audiobook or wrapping up tight in a blanket.

Highly sensitive children need to know that grief looks different in different people and that there isn’t a right way to feel — that all feelings are totally normal and okay. And highly sensitive kids can sometimes be told they’re overreacting or being dramatic. When my daughter’s snail died, I could have said, “Get over it, it’s just a snail.” But by accepting their strong feelings, we’re telling our kids that they are okay and that we are there to support them in learning to manage their emotions.

What If You Can’t Get a Pet for Your Highly Sensitive Child?

I understand, though, that many living situations make pet ownership difficult. Luckily, there are other ways to include animals in your child’s world. For a whole year, my daughters and I volunteered as SPCA “kitten cuddlers.” It’s a real job! For an hour or two each week, we spent time petting and cuddling cats and kittens to socialize them, preparing them for their new families.

It was great for the cats — some of which came in fairly wild — but had many benefits for my children too. They got over their fear of cats (they had had a bad experience with a cat previously), developed deep compassion for them, and proved they could handle responsibility. In fact, as highly sensitive people tend to notice subtleties and tune in to others — including animals — my girls ended up being given the job of handling the very wild, difficult cats. The experience led to us adopting two cats of our own, who we adore.

Volunteering isn’t for everyone, and it’s not the only way. Dog walking, wild (safe) animals, the pet store, the zoo, and other people’s pets can all be alternative sources of animal contact.

Or there is one other option. Perhaps you could get your kids a snail?

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