I readily admit a bias on the subject of raising kids with animals. After all, my husband and I met as co-workers at the Bronx Zoo, and our first family together included two dogs, two cats, two birds, and an aquarium containing fish and frogs. By the time our daughter was born, the frogs and dogs had passed on but we correctly guessed early on that her first word would be “cat.”
But what if you aren’t a longtime animal lover? What if your kid is nagging you for a pet, or you simply want her to grow up with an animal companion? How do you pick the right one? Experts agree that, no matter what your child says or promises, ultimately all responsibility for cleaning, feeding, walking, and other care rests on you, the parent. Thus, decisions about what kind of pet to get should be a family matter.
“I think parents should always be mindful that the pet belongs to them, not the child,” says Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of the ASPCA’s Adoption Center. She also urges parents to remember that, “There has to be adult supervision when interacting with the pet. It’s great enrichment, but it’s not an autopilot activity. So it takes extra energy and effort on the part of parents.”
Once a decision is made to bring a pet into the home, the next choice is what kind? “Are you into a traditional pet like a dog or cat or do you want a pocket pet, rodents, birds or a reptile?” says Ann Hohenhaus, staff veterinarian at Manhattan’s Animal Medical Center.
For a first pet or a young child, Hohenhaus advises: “Fish are fun and they’re low maintenance. It can be a very positive experience to watch and feed them.”
For older children, she says, “When a kid is 6, 7, or 8, a ‘pocket pet’ like a gerbil or hamster is a good choice. At this age, kids are old enough to understand hand-washing.”
Pocket pets “allow children to interact with them and participate in pet care activities while supervised by an adult, and they’re relatively less demanding (than a dog or cat),” adds the ASPCA’s Buchwald. “In general, they require a tank, enrichment and exercise items, bedding, food, water, and daily socialization.” The downside is that these animals are nocturnal, meaning when they’re more active, your kids are likely to be asleep.
While parakeets and cockatiels look tempting in pet store displays, Hohenhaus downplays the desirability of birds. “Birds are a big commitment,” she says. “I’m not sure they’re that good a pet for kids. They live a long time, need a lot of social interaction, are smart, and are easily bored. Kids want to hold a pet and birds are fairly delicate.”
Hohenhaus also doesn’t recommend reptiles for kids who want to hug and cuddle with a pet. “Ninety-nine percent of reptiles carry salmonella and shed it in their feces,” she warns. She suggests waiting at least until children are old enough to understand hand washing before bringing home a pet lizard or turtle.
“Some pediatrics groups don’t think children under age 5 should have pets, so you may see resistance from your doctor (no matter what you pick) because kids under age 5 are immuno-compromised,” says Hohenhaus. “They don’t have as good an immune system (as adults) and are at higher risk for an infection, which can be transmitted by bites, scratches, or contact with feces.”
Families that want a dog or cat may want to consider adopting an adult animal, which is less likely to bite, scratch, and have transmittable diseases, according to Hohenhaus. With younger animals, it’s important to consider a child’s maturity level. “Once a kid understands no,” she says, “then maybe a puppy or kitten would work.”
While certain dog breeds become popular as a result of roles in TV shows and movies, looks can be deceiving. A cute dog on the big screen may not be the right dog for your family.
“Choosing a cat or dog should be done on the basis of lifestyle preferences and should take into account exercise and energy level, the amount of training a pet owner wishes to do, and other things,” says Buchwald. The ASPCA has a program called Meet Your Match, which is designed to match pet owners with pets for lifestyle compatibility.
Once you’ve chosen the right breed of dog or cat, Buchwald says there are many reasons to spay or neuter your pet other than population control. “Spay/neuter is important in eliminating many behavioral issues such as spraying in male cats, wandering in search of a mate, mounting in male dogs, and unruly behavior and vocalization among females in heat. It is also helpful in preventing certain forms of reproductive cancers.”
While all pets require some investment of time, energy, and money, both women feel it’s worth the effort. “I think it’s been documented that kids learn compassion and empathy and that there’s a strong human-animal bond that they can feel,” says Buchwald. “An animal can be a real companion.”