"Mommy, I Want a Puppy"
Timmy and Lassie. Fern and Wilbur. Cherished tales about kids and their beloved pets abound -- and with good reason: The right pet can provide a child with much-needed companionship and unconditional love. Best of all, pets teach kids lasting lessons about caring for other living things.
"Having a pet shows a child appreciation for another form of life and teaches responsibility," says Shelly Rubin, D.V.M., chairman of the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Public Relations, in Schaumburg, Illinois. "Caring for a pet is something all families should experience -- if they have the time, commitment, and finances necessary." Experts agree: Buying or adopting a pet should be a well-reasoned and unanimous family decision. With some work, a little luck, and attention to a few simple guidelines, your new family member will bring years of love and affection to everyone in your household.
Whose Pet Is It, Anyway
One minute, your child is making heartfelt promises to take care of the animal she wants so badly -- and soon, you're up at 5:00 a.m., groggily spooning Savory Seafood into Fluffy's food dish. "It's a clich?: Children will say, 'I promise I'll take care of it,' but the novelty wears off," says Randall Lockwood, Ph.D., a Humane Society psychologist. Pet care is primarily the parents' responsibility. If you're not prepared to step up to the task, think carefully before adopting a pet.
You should, however, make sure that your children share some of the responsibilities, and post an age- appropriate chore list. My 12-year-old, Lindsey, has pet duties that include walking her dog, brushing his teeth with beef-flavored toothpaste, and grooming him. In general, kids under age 8 can help with the feeding and bathing. Older children can walk a dog and clean up after him.
In addition to the work, consider the costs. For a purebred dog or cat, you can expect to spend $200 to $1,500. Mixed breeds and animals from shelters cost next to nothing. Food and routine care for a dog or a cat will set you back a cool grand a year, estimates the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. Then there are emergencies: When our dog, TJ, blew out his knee, the bill totaled $800. Smaller pets cost less than dogs or cats but still require cages, equipment, and proper food.
Next, decide what type of animal is best. TJ wasn't our first pet; I've lost count of the many ceremonial flushings that have honored our dear, departed goldfish. We started small -- just what experts suggest for first-time pet owners with small children.