Weigh pros and cons before you decide

Pets are great companions and offer the chance for kids to learn important life lessons, but they have to be ready to handle the responsibilities of pet ownership. How do you know if your kids are ready to care for a pet? And which pet is right for them?

Picking a pet
Each pet comes with its own pros and cons list. A dog or cat, for instance, will provide the most affection and interaction but will demand the most care. Is your child ready to commit to picking up after your dog in the yard or taking the dog for a daily walk? If not, this responsibility will fall on you. Dander associated with fur—and how your child might react—is also something to consider before getting a dog or cat.

Reptiles and amphibians including lizards, turtles, frogs, iguanas, snakes, toads, chameleons and salamanders are interesting to watch, but carry salmonella—a bacteria that can cause stomach upset. If your child is good at personal hygiene, or willing to wash his or her hands each time after holding the pet—and also willing to clean the cage regularly—reptiles might be a good choice. However, they often demand live food like meal worms or crickets which means weekly trips to the pet store. Consider how that fits into your schedule.

Some people think guinea pigs are a good way to go, and they certainly can be. It’s a pleasure to feed them lettuce scraps and carrot peals and watch them squeal in delight. They can be calm and allow some cuddling and holding, but sometimes remain skittish. Cage upkeep can be a challenge as it’s a large cage that demands regular cleaning.

If you are not quite ready for a guinea pig, try a gerbil or hamster. After all, the smaller the pet, the less mess they make. Hamsters can be quite entertaining, even when they get out in the house and you have to move furniture to find them. There’s even a mini version—robo hamsters—that are amazingly fast and fun to watch. Rats can also be great pets as they are more intelligent and often like to be held. 

Things to consider
The first question to ask before choosing a pet is if your kids are developmentally ready to take on the care and needs of that particular pet. Don’t expect a 4-year-old to be able to clean a guinea pig cage on her own. Test the waters with small, less demanding pets like goldfish and hermit crabs to reinforce the daily habit of pet care. Once your kids master that you can move up the ladder of the pet world.

Parents often ask at what age kids are ready for a pet. That depends more on your particular child than anything else, but here are a few guidelines. Is your child able to take care of his own basic needs? Can he dress himself, use the toilet alone and get a snack if needed? Then he might be ready. Toddlers and preschoolers don’t know how to control their strength or emotions and can hurt a small pet inadvertently. School age is often a good time to get a pet. Getting a pet that your child can keep in her room might also be something to consider—if you are not keen on having a pet underfoot. Teenagers can usually handle pets but may not have the time for them.

Research has proven that pets are good for our wellbeing. Our blood pressure drops when we pet them, and they provide an open, non-judgmental source of comfort. Kids who have a close pet are often less anxious and withdrawn and pets can bring families together, giving everyone something to rally over and laugh about. Finally there’s the obvious—pets teach kids how to care for someone other than themselves.