By Nora Heston
The decision to get a family pet may be one of the most important decisions you make as a parent. There is a lot to consider when selecting a furry, or not-so-furry, friend for your family, and how you go about making that decision is key. Pets become another member of the family so doing your due diligence is important not just for your pre-existing family, but for the animal as well. Michelle Ramos, the Director of Education at Arizona Animal Welfare League & SPCA (AAWL), tells parents what they need to know before committing to a family companion.
There are countless benefits of pet ownership for children. Not only does a pet offer companionship for children of all ages, but pets also offer an opportunity to teach children valuable life lessons such as responsibility, empathy and how to care for another being. Even young children can help care for the family pet. Teaching a child how to fill a water bowl, sprinkle food into the fish tank or brush their cat or dog may seem simple, but having a daily, or weekly, task related to caring for the newest family member will help them feel a sense of responsibility and understand the importance of taking care of someone else. Parents can use this opportunity to explain cause and effect to young children like, “if you don’t feed the dog, he will be hungry.”
While Ramos says she never recommends a child be the sole caregiver for a pet, the child’s maturity level and motivation to be a responsible pet parent should be taken into consideration. “There is no perfect age [to have a pet],” Ramos says. “Parents should be willing to be actively involved in the care of any animal bought into the family.”
“What parents don’t often realize is the presence of animals in your home can also help foster emotional, cognitive, social and physical development,” she adds. The perks of pet ownership go beyond teaching simple skills to children, who often form supportive, friend-like relationships with their furry companions.
The physical demands pet ownership help children develop fine motor skills and can also promote exercise while the way a child interacts with a pet can help build their confidence and promote social development. The sense of responsibility we attribute to pet ownership is one example of emotional development. In addition, creating interest in animals can lead to a desire to learn more about them, providing significant cognitive development.
It helps to consider all the ways a pet can be utilized to help children. “Not only can fish teach your child the responsibility of having a pet but you could also sneak in a science lesson,” Ramos says. “The concept of animals living in water and not being able to breathe air amazes children. Having a fish tank is a perfect opportunity to learn about fish and understand their gills and behavior.”
As an added bonus, research has found that children who grow up with furred pets in their home or large animals like on a farm, are less likely to develop common allergies because of early exposure to certain bacteria. According to a study conducted by James E. Gern, if a dog lived in the home, infants were less likely to show evidence of pet allergies. They were also at a reduced risk of developing eczema, a common skin allergy that causes itchy red patches of skin. In addition, infants with dogs also showed signs of stronger immune systems.
While Ramos recognizes potential challenges to getting a family pet, she also says the benefits far outweigh the negatives. Caring for and training a pet takes a lot of time and dedication. Older children will be more helpful in this department, especially if you can teach them how to appropriately discipline an animal, or how to use positive reinforcement to train them. A family should, however, never underestimate the commitment it takes to properly train, care for, exercise and clean up after a pet. Families should also consider the potential damage they can cause to furniture and personal items.
The more prepared families are for the potential negatives of pet ownership, the better equipped they will be able handle them.
Ramos recommends against bringing an exotic pet into a home with children, or at least a home with younger children. “The care of these animals is very specialized, housing and lighting is very expensive as is the specialized veterinary care,” she explains. “These types of animals are also not as interactive with their people as dogs and cats; they tend to be a bit more on the ‘wild side.’”
Exotic animals, such as parrots, reptiles, sugar gliders and chinchillas, have not been in the domestic pet market very long and therefore have not been domesticated for thousands of years like dogs and cats.
Preparation is key
In addition to preparing yourself emotionally, and financially, for the addition of a pet to your family, it is important to prepare your child, as well. “Provide your child with education about being a responsible pet parent before you bring an animal into the home,” Ramos suggests. “Do your research—make sure you are selecting the right pet for your family.”
While you are doing your research to determine which pet would be the best fit for your family, start prepping your child for the changes a pet will cause to their life. A new puppy may result in a couple of sleepless nights as the dog adjusts to its new home, while a kitten may accidentally scratch while learning how to appropriately play with children. The more you tell your children what to expect, the less upset will be caused when you bring a new pet home.
Ramos recommends that families who plan to adopt a pet from an animal rescue consult with adoption staff. “Adoption staff often times are familiar with the animals in their care and will be happy to share both good and bad traits of an animal you are considering for adoption,” she says. Staff may be able to point out potential warning signs while you look for a pet that enjoys your presence, is happy to be around children and is tolerant in a variety of circumstances.
Parents can send their children for some formal pet ownership training to help them adjust to life with a pet. AAWL offers programs to assist parents in preparing their children for being pet parents (or siblings), including summer camps that can give your child a jumpstart to their education.
Before Adopting Ask Yourself:
• Will you be able to live with pet hair, a litter box or the occasional wear-and-tear caused by pets?
• Will everyone welcome an animal?
• What is the activity level in your home? Are you an active family? Do you travel?
• If you rent, do you have permission from the property owner?
• How much space do you have inside and outside your home? Will you need a fenced yard? If you get a cat, will you want an outdoor enclosure so your kitty can spend time safely outdoors?
• How much time do you have to spend with a pet?
• Do you have the financial resources if your pet has a medical crisis and has high veterinary bills?
• Do you have someone who can be a secondary caregiver if you are away from home? If not, how will you provide care for your pet when you travel?
For more information: www.aawl.org