Nearly three quarters of US families have pets, making animals are a firm fixture in most American households. And they can bring children a range of benefits, including reduced stress and enhanced self-esteem. Creatures are also a great way of teaching kids about a range of issues, such as responsibility, caring for others and even death.
Indeed, if you have a little one, it’s probably only a matter of time before they ask for a pet. Your child may even specify the animal they want. However, not all creatures are suited to all homes, or family life, so think through all the aspects in detail. Don’t rush into anything, or yield immediately to your child’s demands. Discuss the issues involved with your child thoroughly before agreeing to a purchase.
Think through the costs of veterinarian bills, and the equipment needed to keep the animal, as well as whether you can afford on going expenses such as bedding and food.
Consider how long your proposed pet is likely to live for, and whether there are any local laws regarding animal ownership. You should also discuss who will be responsible for feeding, watering, cleaning, and exercising the creature. And what happens when you go on vacation?
Consider whether you have enough space for an animal, whether it is likely to cause any damage to your home or garden, and whether it will get lonely during the day if no-one is home. Know what you are looking for, whether that’s a small indoor animal, or a large one which needs to be outside.
Learn how to handle the creature properly, so that you can show your kids how to do the same. You’ll also need to teach basic hygiene such as hand washing after touching the animal.
Spend some time researching allergies and asthma, as well as the parasites which can plague pets, from fleas and lice to worms. Make sure you pet is treated regularly.
Dog bites for very young children up to the age of four can be an issue if the little ones are not taught how to behave or react around the animals – for example they mustn’t snatch at the pet’s food. (Or eat it!) Children should leave pets alone when the animals are asleep or feeding. And you should never leave kids on their own with animals, even the family pet, no matter how safe this may seem.
If an animal scratches or bites your child, clean the area thoroughly with antiseptic and soap. If you think the wound may be infected, get medical help promptly.
It may be worth waiting until your child expresses an interest in pet ownership, rather than bringing something home in which they may not be interested. Discuss the animal in question with your child, and research various options together. Arm yourself with all the information you need before making your purchase, so that you are sure you get an animal which is suitable.
People often think of small mammals such as gerbils or hamsters, rats, guinea pigs or mice for a child’s first pet, and it’s true that these creatures often work well. But they can be delicate and may not respond well to being poked, carried or dropped by a young child. Equally, these creatures don’t bond with kids in the same way that dogs or even cats do.
Consider age, maturity level and how responsible your kids are before deciding whether they are really able to handle and help care for a small animal or bird, or whether it would be better for the child to just be involved with a larger pet such as a dog, rather than having sole responsibility for a smaller animal.
Be clear with your child on what you expect of them in terms of caring for their pet. You could even draw up a written contract with them if that would help.
When you go to the pet store, search for animals which look healthy, with clear, bright eyes and clean cages. The creatures should be eating and drinking, and generally active. And let your child choose the accessories and actual animal themselves, once you have decided what kind to have.
Then enjoy as your child learns new skills and starts to form a relationship with their new friend.