by Christa Melnyk Hines | photo by Seem Photography
Before surprising your children with a new pet as a holiday gift this year, consider your family’s lifestyle, finances and personality to decide what pet’s right for you.
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, raising children with pets can benefit a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence and can encourage compassion and empathy. But, unlike a sweater that you return if it doesn’t fit quite right, choosing a pet shouldn’t be an impulse buy.
According to Barbara Poe, a humane society manager, 75 percent of the animals returned to the shelter result from families adding a pet to their households without considering the challenges.
“This percentage rises when talking about the return of puppies. Puppies require a lot of time, socialization and training,” Poe says.
A Moment of Your Time?
First, take a look at a typical day for your family to determine if you’re home enough to provide the care and attention a pet deserves.
“Kittens and puppies are like having an extra toddler in your house. They require a lot of supervision because they will chew on things, climb on things or get into things you don’t necessarily want them to or that might be harmful to them,” says Dawn Morgan, manager of volunteer and client services at an animal rescue organization.
While older dogs and cats may adjust better to a busy lifestyle, they still need exercise, playtime, training and grooming. Without enough exercise and social interaction, a bored, lonely dog may take out its frustrations engaged in destructive behaviors like chewing and digging.
Less demanding pets, like fish, might work better for families with hectic schedules. As with any pet, determine in advance how much you want your child to help, whether it’s with feeding or cleaning. Be prepared to enforce the rules and pick up any slack.
A Financial Commitment
Besides food, vaccinations, spaying or neutering and supplies, the scale slides wildly when considering the overall financial cost of a pet. Life expectancies vary and if your pet develops health problems, you’ll likely pay more for its care over the long haul than for an otherwise healthy animal. Also, if you choose a more exotic pet like a guinea pig, bird or a reptile, prepare to pay a little extra for a veterinarian who specializes in handling exotic animals.
It’s a Match!
To ensure both the safety of your child and the welfare of the animal, understand the temperament of various types of animals.
“It’s really important when you think to bring a pet into your home that you look for a dog or cat that matches your personality and will fit into the dynamic of your family instead of just the one that is the cutest,” Morgan says.
If you’re adopting from a shelter, talk to the volunteer who walks and feeds the animals. This person usually spends the most time with individual cats and dogs and can talk to you about their personalities and which ones would do well in a home with children.
Among dogs, research breeds and mixes. While retrievers and labradors tend to be good family dogs, some families don’t realize how much exercise and attention these breeds require.
Take into account your child’s personality as well.
“Shy or timid kids are confusing to a dog. Dogs react differently to a shy, fearful behavior and may see it as a threatening behavior,” says veterinarian Dr. Andrea Ferrell.
If you choose a puppy, enroll in a puppy training class to ensure that it learns to properly interact with people and to socialize with other dogs.
With parental supervision, animals like rabbits, guinea pigs and other small mammals make good first-time pets for children who are ready for the responsibility of caring for an animal.
Purchase a young rabbit or guinea pig so that it grows accustomed to handling.
While they don’t require much in the way of exercise, rabbits and guinea pigs do enjoy social interaction and clean, indoor enclosures.
Birds and Reptiles
Carefully research other small animals like birds, reptiles and amphibians before adding them to your family. Many of these animals are neither easy to care for nor to handle. Turtles, in particular, carry Salmonella bacteria on their shells, which can sicken a child still learning hand-washing hygiene.
When researching the right pet for you, talk to friends and family who own pets that you are interested in, your veterinarian or your local animal shelter. For more tips and information, visit veterinarypartners.com.
Christa Melnyk Hines, a freelance writer, resides with a pair of energetic dogs, her loving husband and their two active sons (all of whom demand lots of her attention.)