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Should You Give Your Child a Pet? 10 Things to Consider

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

kids and their pets

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  • Kids and pets just seem to go together, but it’s very important to ensure your child is ready, willing, and able to care for an animal before deciding what type of pet to bring home
  • Pet ownership teaches children valuable life lessons such as responsibility, trust, compassion, and loyalty
  • Caring for a pet can also boost self-esteem, promote better grades at school and improve health among children

Dogs and cats offer children companionship, affection, unconditional acceptance, and countless other benefits. That being said, if you’re considering getting a pet for your child, there are lots of factors to consider. For example, some kids are capable at a relatively young age of taking on the responsibility of a pet, while others aren’t there yet.

Below are some things to think about as you decide whether your youngster is ready to take care of a pet, as well as a few tips on how to search and prepare for your new family member.

10 Things to Consider Before Adopting a Pet for Your Child

1. Don’t give your child a pet before she asks for one — I don’t recommend giving a child a pet as a surprise gift 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.

2. 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 five who begin to show real interest in a dog, cat or other animal. That’s a good thing, because children younger than five can’t be expected to 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.

3. 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 that the commitment he’s making is for the lifetime of the pet.

4. 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 that 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.

5. 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.

6. Don’t hand over a defenseless animal to an unpredictable 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.

7. 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 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. 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.

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10 Life Lessons Caring for a Pet Can Teach Your Child

Pets are great teaching tools for kids. In fact, your child can learn much from caring for a pet, including these 10 invaluable life lessons.

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.