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.
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.
Many experts suggest waiting until your children are school-age to get a cat or a dog. But R.J. Krapfl, D.V.M., an Omaha-based small-animal practitioner, notes, "There are a lot of dogs and cats in homes with children between the ages of 1 and 6, and most of these families have very few, if any, problems." Still, precautions are required, he says: "You cannot leave a young child alone with her pet." The child may unknowingly provoke even the gentlest animal into growling, biting, or swiping its claws.
Dr. Lockwood suggests that parents of young kids consider a gerbil, a guinea pig, or a hamster. These interesting animals are nonaggressive and require minimal attention. Turtles and other reptiles are not good pets for children, because they are host to salmonella bacteria and require thorough hand-washing after every handling. Be sure you learn about any animal's traits before you buy it. You don't want to learn by surprise, for instance, that hamsters are nocturnal.
If you decide your family is ready for a dog or a cat, assess your lifestyle. Does noise get on your neighbors' nerves? Can you handle shedding? Remember that keeping a high-energy dog cooped up all day long is asking for trouble. And though cats fare better in tighter spaces, it's typical for them to claw furniture or carpets.
For smaller pets such as hamsters, pet stores are a convenient source, but they can vary widely in the quality of the animals they sell. Make sure to check the well-being of the animals and the cleanliness of the cages. To find a cat or a dog, try starting at an animal shelter. More than half the 8 to 12 million companion animals left in shelters each year are euthanized, so by choosing a shelter pet, you may save its life. Shelter specialists can help you select a pet with a good personality for kids.
If you have your heart set on a purebred dog or cat, remember that different breeds have different temperaments. The American Kennel Club's Website provides information about purebred breeds, as does the American Cat Fanciers Association's site.
Before you buy, ask the breeder for references. Charlie McCurdy and his wife, Maureen McGee, of Glenside, Pennsylvania, didn't do this before they bought a pug for their 11-year-old twin daughters. Milo was soon found to have neurological problems. "The dog is sweet," McCurdy says, "but I would do a more thorough check next time."
Whether you purchase your animal from a breeder or a pet store, ask if you'll be able to return the pet should problems surface, and be aware of the consumer-protection laws in your state. Then have a vet check the dog or cat within a few days.
When it comes to pets, your child will almost certainly experience love at first sight -- with every cuddly creature he sees. So the first time you visit a litter, don't bring the kids. Instead, arm yourself with questions about the temperament and health of the animals and the parents.
Remove a puppy from her litter mates and mother, and watch her response for curiosity and a wagging tail. Walk a few steps away and see whether she follows you and is willing to be petted. This process is called temperament testing.
When selecting a cat, look for one that purrs and lets you hold him, says Nancy Frensley, an animal behaviorist and trainer for the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society, in Berkeley, California. Dangle a string and see if he plays with it. "If he offers you his belly for rubbing, it's his way of saying he trusts you," Frensley says. Be wary of cats or kittens that bite or hiss.
Acquiring the perfect pet doesn't end with its selection. Proper training, particularly obedience classes for dogs, makes a world of difference. Lindsey, then only 5, observed TJ's classes and picked up many handling tips. Though there aren't obedience classes for cats, your vet can advise you on how to discipline your pet. These days, when I watch Lindsey playing with TJ and confiding in him, I realize that their relationship is everything I'd hoped for and more. Sure, pets take their share of time, money, and energy. But the bottom line is, they're worth it.
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the March 2001 issue of Parents magazine.