10 Life Lessons Having a Pet Can Provide

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

kids pet ownership

Story at-a-glance -

  • Caring for a pet teaches children responsibility, trust, compassion, respect and patience
  • Other valuable life lessons of pet ownership include loyalty and the importance of physical activity
  • Pet ownership may also boost self-esteem, promote better grades at school and improve health among children
  • It’s very important to insure your child is ready, willing and able to care for an animal before deciding what type of pet to bring home

Kids and pets just seem to go together, don’t they? Dogs and cats offer children companionship, affection and unconditional acceptance. They are also great teaching tools. In fact, your child can learn much from caring for a pet, including these 10 valuable life lessons.

10 Life Lessons Caring for a Pet Can Teach Your Child

1. Responsibility — Caring for a pet requires daily feeding, exercise and playtime, as well as grooming and potty walks. Older children with a pet learn what it means to care for another living creature, and even younger children can help with feeding and playtime.

2. Trust — It’s easy to confide in a pet who offers unconditional support in return. Pets make wonderful trusted companions for children and can be a first step in helping your child build trust in other relationships too.

3. Compassion — Caring for a pet requires compassion, understanding and empathy. Kids learn to be kind and to take care of others’ basic needs.

4. Bereavement — When a beloved pet dies, your child will inevitably feel the pain of the loss, but he’ll also learn how to cope with sadness and grief.

5. Respect — Caring for a pet teaches kids how to respect others. For example, they learn the proper way to approach, touch, and hold their pet and tend to his needs. They learn not to disturb him when he’s eating or sleeping.

6. Self-Esteem — Pets show unconditional love, which can be a great boost to a child’s self-esteem. So, too, can the satisfaction that comes from having responsibility and a furry friend who relies on you.

7. Loyalty — A pet’s loyalty toward her human is unmatched. In turn, children learn the importance of showing loyalty to their devoted animal companion.

8. Physical activity — Children with dogs learn how fun physical activity can be while they play tug-of-war, fetch or go for walks with their pet. Research shows that children with dogs spend more time being physically active than children without dogs.1

9. Patience — Bonding with a new pet often takes time. Your child will learn patience while your new pet becomes comfortable in your home and also during training.

10. Social skills — Dogs make wonderful icebreakers for both kids and adults. Taking your dog for walks as a family can improve your child’s social skills as you interact with others. Pets may also help children with autism develop social skills such as sharing.

There are many other benefits as well. Your child can have her basic emotional and physical needs fulfilled by a pet, including comforting contact, love and affection. Research also shows that children from homes with dogs (during their first year of life) have fewer ear infections and respiratory tract infections, and require fewer antibiotics, perhaps because the exposure stimulates the immune system.2

Other noted benefits include a significantly reduced risk of allergies and even better grades at school, presumably because owning a pet seems to give kids greater motivation.

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Is Your Child Ready for a Pet?

Some children are ready at a young age to take on the responsibility of a pet. Others, not so much. Here are a few things to consider as you decide whether your youngster is ready for pet guardianship, as well as a few tips on how to search and prepare for your new family member.

Wait until your child is old enough — Wait for your child to express consistent, genuine interest in having a pet. It's usually children over the age of 5 who begin to show real interest in a dog, cat or other animal. That's a good thing, because children younger than 5 cannot handle the responsibility of caring for a pet. Toddlers and very young kids are much more likely to injure an animal, or risk being injured themselves by a fearful or startled pet.

Don't give your child a pet before she asks for one — I don't recommend giving a child a pet as a surprise, or insisting a youngster should have a pet of his own. It's better for everyone involved, including the animal, if your child is eager for the responsibility of a pet and is prepared.

DO consider getting a pet for a levelheaded, responsible child — Honestly evaluate your child's maturity and responsibility level, no matter how old she is. If she's mature for her age, takes direction well, uses common sense, has a calm nature and shows empathy for animals, she's probably ready for a pet of her own.

DON'T hand over a defenseless animal to an inconsiderate or immature child — If, on the other hand, your child is forgetful, careless, reckless, extremely self-absorbed or tends to get herself into scrapes someone else has to get her out of, she might not yet be mature or responsible enough to care for a dependent, defenseless creature.

Talk to your child about the commitment he is making — When you discuss acquiring a pet with your youngster, cover the topic of permanency. Help your child understand pets are not like toys that can be tossed aside or given away if he grows bored with them. Make sure he understands the commitment he is making is for the lifetime of the pet.

Also prepare for the possibility your child will grow tired of caring for his pet. In that case, it is you and other family members who must pick up the slack and take over care of the animal.

Assign pet care responsibilities before the animal arrives — Set pet caretaking expectations ahead of time. I recommend discussing with your child and other family members all house rules for the new pet and who will have responsibility for what. It's a good idea to write everything down and post it in spot where your child can easily refer to it.

Feeding and interacting with the pet is the fun part of pet ownership, but there are many dirty, cumbersome and not-so-fun aspects of daily care that kids must be ready to take on, as well.

Research types of pets with your child — This will help both of you learn what's involved in caring for a variety of different animals. It will also give both of you an opening to discuss any concerns you have about whether your child is ready to take on such an important responsibility. Financial considerations, time constraints and your living situation will also factor into the choice of a pet.

Consider testing your child's readiness for a pet by starting small — Unless you're prepared to share primary caretaking responsibilities for a pet like a dog, cat or exotic bird with your child, I recommend you start small. You can begin with a couple of fish or a frog if you're really unsure of your child's level of commitment. Or you can start with a pocket pet like a rat or a guinea pig.

However, don't assume because a pet is small or lives in a cage it doesn't require much care. All animals require attention in order to be healthy and balanced. Both pocket pets and pet birds require lots of interaction and plenty of time outside their habitats. That's why research and preparation are priceless when it comes to a decision about what type of pet is best for your child.

Exhaust adoption options before purchasing a pet — Depending on the type of pet you and your child choose, I encourage you to look first at the shelters and rescue organizations in your area for an adoptable animal. Almost every type of animal now has specialty rescue associations (from turtles to guinea pigs) so consider looking into providing a forever home to an unwanted pet first.

Adopting a shelter pet will help your child understand the plight of homeless animals, as well as how terrific it feels to provide a forever home for a deserving pet.

Make a family commitment to care for the pet for its lifetime — If your child loses interest in a new pet, be prepared to set the right example by not giving up the animal. Your child should learn responsibilities don't just disappear when she grows tired of them. Each member of your family must be willing to take care of any pet you adopt for its lifetime.


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