Friday, March 25, 2011

Mommy, can I have a puppy?

Over a year ago, Becca Smith started following this blog. Last May, she guest blogged for me, sharing her wisdom as a single mom who prides herself in not being the cool mom on the block.

For many years, she worked as a veterinary technician, and has vast knowledge in the field of pets and their human companions. So I asked Becca to write another guest post for me about the whole issue of children and pets. When should you get your child a pet? What kind of pet should you get? These were questions I asked her to address and she graciously agreed to do so for today's blog.

Thank you, Becca...oh, and the snake picture is just for you : )

GG's cat Hadaash

How Old is Old Enough?

Parents often wonder, how old is old enough to get their child a pet?

As a previous veterinary technician with 15 years in small animal practice, I was often asked about this. Would it be when said child asks for one? When you see something you always wanted? When the impulse hits at a rescue event or when a family member can no longer keep a pet and asks your family to help?

All these times could be the time, but there are a few things to keep in mind about your child, their age and the type of pet you bring into your home before you do so. In my experience, you should not get a pet for a child under the age of three. Not only are children this young not able to provide care for the pet, but they often don't understand the difference between real and play. The stuffed bear they drag by one leg is cute but it won't make a kitten too happy and both could end up hurt and in need of medical care. Even if you already have family pets, toddlers and pets should always be supervised. Kids are kids and your pets are matter how sweet they are, it's best to always be cautious.

GG's Jardine parrot Morgan
Ages 3 to 6 is a good age to allow your children to assist with some pet care. They can help fill water bowls and let Fido out to play in a fenced yard. If you have a mellow pet you could encourage your child to sit with the pet and read to him while you sit nearby. Or, if the pet enjoys grooming, let your child brush him. At this age, you can introduce pets like goldfish, but remember, they usually don't live long and to lose a pet can be difficult for many small children. Birds, like finches, are noisy and active and kids may enjoy them, but again, they don't have long life spans and they need an adult to feed, water and care for the cages. (No freeing Tweety please!)

Reptiles are not good pets for children of this age, as children often have their hands on or near their mouths and they can pick up some nasty illnesses. The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association), recommends that the following households should not own reptiles if anyone in the home:

GG's daughter with her pet snake
• is immune suppressed
• has Sickle cell anemia
• or does not have a spleen

(I personally don't care for "exotic" pets, aka wild animals...I don't think we will ever domesticate snakes or spiders!)

Children ages 7 to 10 are about the right age to care for a small pet. If you have family pets, you can judge your child’s willingness and abilities to care for an animal. If you decide to allow another pet, keep in mind what you already have and whether or not they will tolerate another animal...older cats and dogs often do not like younger playmates for company.

GG's dog, Jake

Children should not feed dogs. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), children 5 - 9 are the most often bitten. This may be because they are about face height to many larger breeds or, in a dog's world, eye level. Dogs perceive direct, prolonged eye contact as a challenge, and over food...that is a recipe for trouble!

Children may enjoy hamsters or other rodents, small birds like finches and parakeets, and fish. A small aquarium or even a simple beta in a bowl will often meet the child’s need to have a pet. Rabbits can kick and scratch with the back legs, which makes them a bad choice for young kids. Additionally, if one jumps from the arms of a walking child, it can break its back. Rabbits bite too…hard.

Around 11 or 12 is the age when kids really can understand how much work and fulltime dedication is involved, and if they are up to the challenge of pet ownership’s low points -- like poop patrol, either in the yard, litter box or cage. If you allow your child to have a cat or dog of their own, remember the expense of vaccines and spaying or neutering. Shots are a yearly expense as are heartworm prevention and flea control. These are expenses you will have to cover or, at least help pay for. Your kids can feed, groom and exercise their pets. They can also train their dogs; however, most obedience classes expect an adult to participate for safety reasons. As I have large breeds, I don't let the kids walk them outside the yard...keep in mind neighborhood leash laws, poop patrol and the rules of dog parks are popping up everywhere and have to be adhered to. Just be sure that, no matter the age of the child or pet you add to the household, as the parent you are willing to assume care of the animal if your kids slack up.

Finally, seeing your kids and pets playing in the yard or cuddling up for movie time or just watching your child seek comfort from a pet after a bad day at school, reminds you that, overall, sharing our lives with pets is a good thing. A pet, regardless of who it "belongs" to, is really a family project. Everyone can benefit by simply following a few guidelines.

So, what do you think? How young is too young for kids to have pets? Are there any kinds of pets you wouldn't let your children have under any circumstances?


  1. Great advice!! My husband would love to get a dog but I want to wait until the kids can help. I hope I can hold off at least another 7 years. Linc has just really discovered the cats. He tries (and sometimes succeeds) to grab the tails or ears of any of the 3 that might pass by!

  2. I'm glad Becca validated your position! get the husband to read the blog...


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