Children are fascinated by animals. Whether it's a bunny in a picture book, a nature show crocodile, a horse on the farm, or a monkey in the zoo, our kids can't get enough of the furry - and even the scaly and slithery - creatures that share our planet. And when it comes to the creatures that share our homes, the fascination is even more intense. The bond that develops between a child and his pet is deep and can be every bit as authentic as the emotional ties to a parent, grandparent, sibling, or friend.

What's behind this fascination?

One theory, biophelia, argues that our attraction to animals is hard-wired in our brains. In fact, evidence suggests that for as long as we humans have been walking the earth, we have had pets by our side. Whatever the reason, research shows that kids reap rich rewards from interacting with animals. A pet can provide affection, counteract loneliness, and help relieve stress. Feeding the classroom turtle or guinea pig can teach responsibility and care. Visiting a drive-through safari or simply watching the squirrels in the park gives children a chance to learn about habitats and survival. In short, animals provide one of the best learning tools in your child's life.

Lessons from a Fish

At its simplest, having an animal at home invites more of the natural world into your child's everyday experiences. It's like a daily biology lesson. A pet provides an up-close opportunity to study how a non-human creature moves, sees, smells, thinks, and even feels. In addition, a pet can help your child understand other kinds of animals, even those he may never have seen in person. One study showed that 5 year olds who cared for a goldfish at home better understood how frogs eat and grow than their classmates without direct pet experiences.

That goldfish can also help your child learn empathy. Young children do not automatically come equipped with the ability to see and feel from another's perspective, especially when that other is very different from them. (Think of the preschooler who picks out a toy car or a doll as just the right gift for Daddy's birthday.) Animals, with their ways of moving, eating, and communicating that are so different from humans, challenge young children's "me" perspective. A dog's tucked-in tail says "I'm scared," for instance. A cat's arched back and standup fur says, "I'm seriously annoyed."

These unique moments give children a chance to step into other paws and claws and see the world through animal eyes. One bonus of learning empathy this way is a greater awareness of animal welfare. Kids who understand animal behavior and needs are more likely to embrace humane attitudes. In addition, empathy for the animal world may spill over (with your help) into greater sensitivity to human needs.

Pets give many children a sense of companionship, support, and love. Misty the gerbil isn't the only animal to earn a Best Friend Award. Pets are available and rarely too busy to give their undivided attention - especially if a treat is in the offing. If a child is upset, for example, Misty doesn't have to be dragged away from preparing dinner or pulled off the phone. She doesn't say, "Use your words." Instead, she's all ears. No wonder many children see their pets as self-esteem boosters.

Animals provide opportunities to nurture. Although we rightly think of kids on the receiving end of care, we hope that when they grow up they'll, in turn, be sensitive nurturers of children, elderly, and others. The roots of nurturing skills are laid down during childhood, as children observe, learn about, and try out being caregivers. Pets, whether at home or in school, are dependent on us to survive, and can help children plant those roots. When your child sets out food, grooms the guinea pig, walks the dog, or goes along with you to the vet, his nurturing roots are growing.

Caring for an animal provides an especially important opportunity for boys to nurture, since they get fewer chances to hone their care-giving skills as they grow up. Research has found that children associate caregiving of humans with the female role - a "mommy thing," as one 3-year-old said to me. Pet care is a solid "gender-neutral" training ground for nurturance.

Animal Opportunities

If you're considering a pet, be aware that there's no one right animal (or species) for toddlers, preschoolers, or teens. Instead, the choice involves savvy matchmaking. Into the mix go an animal's needs and temperament, your child's personality, and your family's situation. Will that high-energy dog get the exercise she needs living in a small apartment? Will the cat hair set off Grandma's allergies? Will those veterinary bills stretch the budget too far?

If you can't make room for an animal in your home, don't worry: There's no evidence that pets are necessary for children to thrive. We do know, however, that children's lives are enriched by involvement with the natural world. Try to find other ways to go "on safari." A backyard birdfeeder, for example, offers a ringside seat at an "avian drama." Walks in the woods or a visit to a petting zoo, an aquarium, or the seashore are all wonderful ways to bring your child and animal life together.