Choosing a pet for your child

Choosing a pet for a child is not to be taken lightly. There are several important considerations that must be discussed by the family before a pet is adopted.

Parental involvement, open discussion, and planning are necessary to help make pet ownership a positive experience for everyone. It is essential that parents carefully consider all aspects of the household before choosing a pet:

  • Do you have the space for the kind of pet you want? A guinea pig or hamster may be a better choice for flat dwellers than a Great Dane.
  • Do you have the time to engage in play and exercise which are essential to a pet’s health?
  • Who is the pet’s primary carer? Ensure that is made clear from day one so that the pet isn’t neglected because someone thought someone else was looking after it.
  • Can you afford its long-term medical care? The first year of a pet’s life (vaccinations and sterilisation) and the last years (when diseases of ageing catch up with them) are generally the most expensive.
  • In the case of a dog, your pet will probably live for 10 to 12 years; a cat even longer. Are you prepared to take on this responsibility for that long? A pet is for life; not just for Christmas!

Teaching your child to care for a pet

  • Since very young children (under the age of 3-4 years) do not have the maturity to control their aggressive and angry impulses, they should be monitored with pets at all times.
  • Young children (under 10 years) are unable to care for a large animal, a cat or a dog, on their own.
  • Parents must oversee the pet’s care even if they believe their child is old enough to care for a pet.
  • If children become lax in caring for a pet, parents may have to take over the responsibility on their own.
  • Children should be reminded in a gentle, not scolding way, that animals, like people, need food, water, shelter and exercise and that they feel pain too.
  • If a child continues to neglect a pet, a new home may have to be found for the animal.

Parents serve as role models. Children learn responsible pet ownership by observing their parents’ behaviour. Although most children are gentle and appropriate with pets, some may be overly rough or even abusive. If such behaviour persists, it may be a sign of significant emotional problems. Any child who abuses, tortures, or kills animals should be referred to a child and adolescent psychiatrist for a comprehensive evaluation.