The purpose of this study was to investigate whether childhood experiences with family pets are associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety in early adulthood. Undergraduate students (n=318) responded to an online survey that included questions about bonding with childhood pets, exposure to family violence and human aggression directed toward family pets in childhood, and current symptoms of depression and anxiety. Two-way ANCOVAs were conducted with a measure of childhood emotional abuse included as a covariate, and significant interactions were observed between pet bonding and exposure to aggression toward pets (pet aggression). Among participants with medium-level bonds, those who were exposed to pet aggression had significantly higher depression and anxiety scores than those who were not exposed to pet aggression. Among participants who were not exposed to pet aggression, those with medium-level bonds had lower depression and anxiety scores than those with low-level bonds. Bearing in mind the limitations of the research design, the results are consistent with the assertion that bonding with pets may support mental health and that exposure to animal cruelty may lead to the development of internalizing symptoms. The results also support the contention that both bonding with pets and exposure to pet aggression should be considered when investigating the association between experiences with pets and mental health. Interventions for the protection of children may be indicated in cases of animal cruelty. Social workers who investigate child maltreatment may be advised to refer children who are exposed to animal cruelty for counseling. Clinicians should consider addressing issues that arise from exposure to pet aggression during the therapeutic process.
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