Is Your Child Ready for a Pet?

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.
  • Dog or cat? In general, dogs require more time and attention than cats. Will someone be home in the afternoon to let the dog out? Dogs shouldn't be left alone for more than 8-10 hours and should be allowed a potty break at least four times a day, particularly after eating. While cats are easily trained to use a litter box, the box must be cleaned every few days and kept inside (but away from children who might see it as a small sandbox).
  • Puppy/kitten or adult? While you might think a young animal is a safer choice for small children, that's not always the case. Puppies and kittens nip, chew and scratch and don't know their own strength, much like children. They're also more fragile and easily injured. Puppies must be housetrained and need to be let outside at least every two hours.
  • Breed? Almost any breed of dog or cat can make a good family pet. It has much more to do with the temperament of the individual animal. If you're adopting an adult pet from a rescue group, they may be able to tell you how the animal behaves around children. Some very large and very small breeds of dogs might not be a good choice for families with young children because a large animal could accidently injure the child, while the child could accidentally injure a very small animal.
Whether you choose a dog or a cat, introducing the animal to your home is an important step that should be handled with care.

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.

Small/Non-Traditional Pets
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.

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