Taking care of a pet has been shown to help children develop empathy and compassion for animals, people and themselves. But how can you tell if your child is ready for the responsibility of caring for a pet?
First, you should change your thinking about what owning a pet means. In any household with children, an animal should be considered a family pet, not just the responsibility of one person, be it a child or a parent. Everyone should participate in the animal's care based on what they’re able to handle for their age. Even young children can take turns feeding a pet or participating in family walks or playtime. This will teach children that animals are part of the family and require and deserve the same level of care as humans do.
But, before you adopt a dog or cat, you should make sure all your children know how to interact with animals safely.
Basic Animal Safety
If you're considering adopting a dog or cat, your children likely have spent time with other people's pets and already have expressed an interest in having a family pet. Interacting with unfamiliar animals takes special care, so make sure they're prepared to help meet and choose your new family member.
1. All animals should be approached calmly. The child should offer the animal a closed, upturned fist to smell. This will protect their fingers and prevent them from reaching over the animal, which might frighten them.
2. Make sure children understand that animals should be touched and petted gently and never poked, pulled at or chased.
3. They should know not to touch an animal while it's eating or sleeping.
4. They should always ask an adult before they approach or pet any animal.
Once your child understands how to interact safely with animals, they can get some practice by volunteering to cat sit or dog walk for a neighbor or extended family member. If you're considering adopting a dog, in particular, the book "Are You Ready for Me?" offers a way to explore the process with young children, including a quiz to test their readiness.
Choosing the Right Pet
Dog or cat? Puppy or adult? Mixed-breed or purebred? These are all questions you should ask when you consider adopting a pet. The right answer will depend on your family's specific situation and needs.
1. Bring the animal home on the weekend so you'll have more time to spend helping it adjust.
2. Plan to take it to the vet for a basic check-up within the first few days. Whether you adopt from a shelter or a breeder, they will provide you with the animal's health records. You'll want to get established with a vet immediately so they'll be prepared to see you quickly if your pet becomes ill or injured. If the animal hasn't already been spayed or neutered, discuss when that should be done with your vet.
3. Make a care and feeding schedule and make sure every member of the family knows what they are responsible for and when it needs to be done.
4. Show a new cat where its litter box will be kept. Give a dog, even an adult one who is house-trained, many opportunities to go outside to prevent accidents. Dogs respond well to routines, and the faster you can establish a schedule for potty breaks, the better.
5. Cats especially should be confined to one room or small area of the house at first. Supervise the animal's exploration of any areas that they are allowed to enter. Use gates to keep them out of restricted areas.
If your child is not ready to participate in the care of a dog or cat, you may think that a small "starter" pet is a good way to prepare them. While this might sound like a wise choice, in reality it could be problematic for several reasons.
1. Small animals are easily harmed by excited children. When rodents are frightened or handled roughly, they are also likely to bite.
2. Small animals can't easily communicate their needs. While a dog will let you know immediately if you forget to feed him, a hamster or lizard has no way to remind a child that they forgot to fill his food or water bowl.
3. A small animal can remain out of sight and out of mind of adults, especially if its cage is kept in a child's room.
4. Many non-traditional pets pose a health hazard to children younger than five. Reptiles, amphibians, rodents, ferrets and baby ducks and chicks all can transmit diseases to the very young or any person with a compromised immune system.
If you do decide a small pet is a good choice for your child. Be prepared for problems that could arise down the road. If the child loses interest in the pet after a few week or months, you might want to consider finding a new home for the animal. Explain your decision to your child and offer another chance to take proper care of the pet. If your child is unwilling or unable, you'll need to find a new owner for the pet or a teacher willing to keep the animal as a classroom pet. Try not to make your child feel guilty for misjudging his or her ability to care for an animal. Everyone matures at a different rate, and your son or daughter might not be ready for the responsibility of caring for a living creature until he or she is a little older.
Numerous studies have shown that pets can benefit children in many ways, from preventing the development of allergies and asthma to helping them develop high self-esteem. And companion animals have been shown to relieve stress, which can benefit the entire family. Choosing to adopt an animal is a lifelong commitment and big responsibility, but it's also a rewarding choice for many families.
American Animal Hospital, "How often does a dog need to urinate and have a bowel movement?" www.americananimalhospital.com, accessed on July 18, 2013.
Larry K. Pickering, MD, Nina Marano, DVM, MPH, Joseph A. Bocchini, MD, Frederick J. Angulo, DVM, PhD, and the Committee on Infectious Diseases. "Exposure to Nontraditional Pets at Home and to Animals in Public Settings: Risks to Children." Pediatrics. 2008 October 876-886.
Lexington Human Society, "Selecting the Right Pet for Your Family," lexingtonhumanesociety.org, accessed on July 18, 2013.
North Shore Animal League, "Teaching Children Pet Safety Rules," www.animalleague.org, accessed on July 18, 2013.
The Humane Society of the United States, "Housetraining Your Dog or Puppy," www.humanesociety.org, accessed on July 18, 2013.
The Humane Society of the United States, "Bringing Your New Dog Home," www.humanesociety.org, accessed on July 18, 2013.
The Humane Society of the United States, "Bringing Your New Cat Home," www.humanesociety.org, accessed on July 18, 2013.
WebVet, "Is Your Child Ready for a Pet Ferret," www.webvet.com, accessed on July 18, 2013.
WebVet, "Animals Teach Children Empathy and Compassion," www.webvet.com, accessed on July 18, 2013.
WebVet, "Positive Side Effects of Pet Ownership for Children," www.webvet.com, accessed on July 18, 2013.