Six-year-old Zhan Bohui does not think of himself as an only child.
He thinks of 11-year-old Bei Bei as his older brother and 2-year-old Gao Gao as his younger sister. To him, the two pups are much more than pets.
"My son never calls them dogs," 35-year-old Zhao Xue, a senior manager at a property development company in Beijing, said.
"He treats them as part of the family and as his playmates."
As the number of pet owners in China grows, experts are finding animal companionship offers the only-child generation some of the experiences in nurturing, compassion, respect, teamwork and generosity that would otherwise come from siblings, she said.
The first study of pet ownership's impact on children's socio-emotional development was published on Thursday. The survey of 402 students from 11 primary schools in Beijing conducted from 2003 to 2006 found animal companions positively impacted children's upbringings.
"Children who have animal companions feel less lonely than those who don't," research leader Zheng Richang, professor at the Beijing Normal University school of psychology, said.
China had more than 90 million only children by 2006, National Population and Family Planning Commission figures show.
A consequence of the family planning policy adopted in 1973 has been the advent of a generation of "little emperors" - that is, children who are spoiled by parents and lack playmates, which has often proven detrimental to their character development.
"Growing up in a family of three, most children lack the opportunity to learn how to love, care for, be responsible toward, and develop close links to, society," surveyor Zhou Xia said.
Guo Jia, a senior program officer at an international organization based in Beijing and mother of a 3-year-old boy, said: "Children are naturally self-centered. They don't develop compassion and empathy for others before age 3.
"So having a pet is good for developing children's personalities and characters, because it helps them develop feelings for other people and animals."
Guo planned to get a dog soon.
Pet ownership has grown rapidly in China. By 2007, more than 700,000 dogs were registered in Beijing, up 17.3 percent from 2006.
Zheng's survey found 98.5 percent of surveyed children with pets loved the animals, and more than 85 percent believed the animals requited their love. It also found 94.1 percent of children without pets wanted them.
Benefits of companion animals included encouraging children to share and care for younger children.
"My son will share food with Bei Bei and Gao Gao during meal times," Zhao said.
"He will help Gao Gao, who has a leg problem, up on the sofa so they can watch TV together."