Cats and dogs have found a special place in our families. Birds, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils and even rats have found homes with humans who love them. Pets provide companionship for some people just by being another living thing around the house. But pets do a lot more than that, especially in families with children.

One of the benefits of owning pets, especially cats and dogs, is that they encourage our sense of empathy because we have to consider their needs in order to keep them alive. In the same vain, research shows that children develop a stronger sense of empathy when pets are a part of their life from an early age.

Think about it, when you had kids, you probably got some quick lessons on empathy. All of a sudden there was a new human being in your life who couldn’t survive without you. Your children are fully dependent on you. How can they learn to be depended on?

Under the mindful supervision of parents, pets also provide a unique opportunity to build self-esteem. Research shows (more from the link above) that giving children age-appropriate responsibilities can boost their self-esteem in healthy ways. And as the child develops, their responsibilities for the pet’s survival can grow with them. It’s also suggested that pets help acquaint children with the sometimes difficult and uncomfortable concepts of birth and death. While it’s an unpleasant experience, it’s opportunity to model the healthy emotions of grief and excitement over these very important human experiences.

For all of these reasons and a lot more than I could list here, pets truly do become part of our families. In a sense, we give them parts of ourselves, and they become us in unexpected ways. Not entirely unlike children. No, of course they are not the same, but what a pet means to you and what a pet means to your three-year-old are probably very different. The bond children develop with a pet they grew up with will be meaningful in some ways that you won’t get to appreciate directly. To include your pet in a family photo (or all your family photos, for that matter) is to honor that meaning for your future self and your children’s future selves.

One day you will look back on that furry companion and remember what he or she meant to you and your family and there will be something in there you can learn. One day the meaning of your pets will be able to influence not just your family today, but your children’s families as well as they discover their own lives, and the lives of other living things.

Take pictures of your pets.