So Happy to See You
Why Pet Ownership Is Ultimately Good For Kids
By Cristina Katz
When my daughter wakes up in the morning and gets out of bed, a small ruckus of howls, barks, and a tap dance of doggy toenails on linoleum begins downstairs.
If you ask Samantha about it, she smiles knowingly to herself. Her dogs, Daisy and Izzy, are over the moon to greet her every morning. This type of unconditional love is what most parents are after when we imagine what it might be like to introduce a pet into our home. Just don’t expect this type of happy harmony to happen overnight.
Dogs and cats are not the only animals that make great pets for kids. If you are looking in the fuzzy pet category consider an older dog, a pair of kittens, a guinea pig, a pair of gerbils, hamsters or mice, or even a rat. Remember that an older pet without special needs is usually going to adapt to busy family life more easily than a brand new anything.
In the non-fuzzy category consider hermit crabs, an ant farm, small lizards, non-poisonous snakes, multiple goldfish, one betta fish, or a pair of small birds. If you opt for carnivorous pets, just make sure you are up for the mealtime ritual that may not sit well with the squeamish. In other words, make sure you know exactly what you are getting yourself into before you flourish your debit card.
But once you are informed and ready to slide your plastic, pat yourself on the back as you remember this list of potential benefits of pet ownership for kids:
• Chance to observe and learn about the habits of real, live animals.
• Emotional support for kids who are depressed, have temporary or life-long disorders, or decreased immunity.
• A reprieve from loneliness or social isolation.
• Opportunities for physical activity with pets, which require regular exercise.
• A boost in allergy resistance.
• Lessons in the power of non-verbal connection and communication.
• Physical affection, as appropriate.
• Increased empathy and compassion.
• A daily stress relief outlet.
• Opportunities to gradually take more responsibility around the house.
Be reasonable, of course. Your snake may not be much of a snuggler and your guinea pig may keep your child awake at night before those nightly rooting noises become comforting.
Because every child and every pet are different, assume your child is not yet old enough to care for pets without supervision, and monitor them both for thoroughness of care no matter what your child’s age. So much of pet satisfaction comes after adjusting everyone’s expectations to reality.
Your pets will likely grow attached to your kids first. But if you are an affectionate, caring, consistent pet parent, and you play your treats right, your animals just might have a little unconditional love left over for the person who pays the bills.
Should You Adopt Young?
Some committed pet owners feel that the bonding that typically comes with raising pets from a very young age is worth the extra effort. But don’t underestimate the time and patience required in raising very young pets, not to mention the additional costs that can come with rapid growth and multiple vet appointments.
Do Pairs Of Pets Make Sense?
If your family travels, you might want to consider whether or not it makes sense to get two pets, if they are the type to keep each other company (think cats but not betta fish). Consult local pet experts before you buy to make sure that the two animals will actually give each other the time of day. If you are mixing types of pets or pets of different ages, you might be able to negotiate a trial run but be realistic. You might have to just dive in to dual pet ownership and sort out the consequences yourself.
When Pet Ownership Is Not An Option
Your kids may pine for pets when adoption is not an option. What’s a parent to do to expose kids to animals when they animals can’t come into the house?
• Make regular stops at the local pet store
• Get a zoo membership
• Visit your regional aquarium
• Arrange for pet visits with neighbors within walking distance
• Watch inspiring and educational films about animals
• Read stories and books about animals
• Offer to care for elderly or ill neighbors’ pets
• Start a local pet-sitting or dog-walking business
• Volunteer through local animal rescue organizations
• Get a job at the local pet store or vet’s office
Prepare Kids To Care For Pets
Don’t assume kids intuitively know how to care for pets. Taking responsibility for another life is a big step and should be approached incrementally according to developmental readiness.
1. Tell them how to do it
2. Show them how a few times
3. Let them read about it in instruction books
4. Have them watch online videos about their pet’s care
5. Walk them through the steps as you care for pets
6. Make them a daily checklist but also check their work
7. Let them go off the checklist but monitor their consistency
8. Have a monthly maintenance checklist
9. Trust older children while monitoring pet health on an ongoing basis
Christina Katz is an animal lover who has cared for guinea pigs, cats, dogs, fish, gerbils, sheep, even ponies, but never snakes. Her pet-loving daughter loves little dogs, but she is strictly a big dog fan. Her latest book is Permission Granted, 45 Reasons To Micro-publish.