As a vet, there's no greater joy than seeing kids with their pets. But with that comes a lot of responsibility. Here's how to see if your kid is up for the challenge.

By Erin Schroeder, DVM
June 29, 2020
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Emma Darvick

When I was 10 growing up in Westport, New York, I begged and begged for a horse. Neither of my parents were "horsey people" (my mom is actually still terrified of horses!), but we lived on an acreage with reasonable space and a barn that could work as a stable.

After several months of incessant pleading, my dad said he'd make a deal with me: if I really wanted a horse, I would need to prove I could take care of one. I would have to get up every day for a month at 5:30 a.m., fill up a five-gallon pail with water, and haul it up to our garden. I then needed to weed and tend for 20 minutes. If I completed this daily chore simulation, then, and only then, could we talk about the prospect of getting a horse.

My parents understood I needed to realize the work and dedication involved in having a pet long before it was standing in our yard. That's an important lesson I've carried with me while working as a rural veterinarian in Hartington, Nebraska. One of the most challenging parts of my job is when I do shelter or rescue organization work and see so many animals being surrendered because the novelty wore off or the realization of how much work, responsibility, and expense having pets actually involves.

At the same time, one of the highlights of my job is getting to see kids and their critters—whether it is a new kitten, an older shelter dog, a 4-H calf, or even a hamster. But as a parent of two teen boys, I have been on the other side of the exam table and wondered how long before my kids were actually going to scoop the litter box without prompting or wondered if they were really going to go outside on their own and make sure their horse's water tanks weren't frozen solid in a sub-zero blizzard.

Truth is, having another living thing that is dependent on you for their well-being is a lot of work (well, you know, it's like being a parent!). Depending on the type of animal your kids want to welcome into your home, there will be extra chores, smells and, undoubtably, additional expenses—and it's important that they know that.

If your child is asking to add a pet to the family, there are some great (and fun) ways to make sure both you and your child can do some hands-on research and see if you are really ready to take on the responsibility and open your life to a new family member.

Dr. Erin Schroeder cuddles and kisses this dog after a successful recovery.
Glass Entertainment Group/National Geographic

Head to volunteer at a local pet shelter.

This is great way to interact with animals before bringing one home. When you offer your time at a shelter, you will help by socializing and playing with pets. There's also opportunity to help take the dogs out for short walks in a controlled area. By getting to handle and play with all different ages, sizes, and types of animals, you can see what traits your family is most comfortable with and what might be the most compatible pet for your family.

Offer to pet sit.

Have a friend, relative, or coworker going on vacation? Offer to take care of their pets while they are gone. Sometimes this is easiest for the pet to do in their own homes, but for certain animals, you can even offer to bring them into your house.

Just make sure before you do any pet-sitting that you have all the information on any pre-existing medical conditions, a list of any behaviors that may make taking care of them easier (for example, Fluffy will try to dash out any open doors and is tough to catch), and the owner and veterinarian's emergency contact information. Also, a note authorizing you to make any emergency veterinary visits is a helpful thing to have in place.

Become a foster pet family.

Think you are ready for a trial run? Try fostering a pet from the local animal shelter. With nearly every rescue and shelter across America bursting at the seams, many organizations have wonderful fostering opportunities, which is a win-win for both the pets and the families involved. The pet will have an opportunity to live in a home setting and your family will get a real-life feel of what pet ownership is all about. As an added bonus, if you fall in love, you are at the top of the list to become their forever home.

Speak to your local vet.

If your kid really wants to get a pet, consider contacting a local veterinarian and schedule an appointment for a consultation. At that time, you can ask questions on basic husbandry, common health concerns, and what basic preventative care is needed for the type of pet you are thinking of adopting. Veterinarians get to work with lots of great animals every day and are a great resource. Plus, this is a great way to establish a relationship with your future pet's future doctor!

Speaking to a vet will also help your family understand the costs of having a pet of any age. In numerous studies, when people were asked to estimate the cost of pet ownership, most people came in way under the averages. When you calculate food, grooming, boarding, supplies, training, and veterinary care, suddenly things start to add up (remember your last trip to Target?!).

Make sure the entire family is on the same page.

Once your family has made the decision to open your hearts and home to a new family member, sit down together and make sure everyone is on the same page. Who will feed the dog in the mornings? Who is going to change the water in the fishbowl? How about basic commands? Does "down" mean lay down or does it mean don't jump on people? By establishing a family understanding of who is responsible for what and when, it is easy to avoid any miscommunications and subsequent mayhem.

Bottom line: while having a pet in your home is a lot of work, it truly is one of the best experiences that life has to offer! And having a pet can teach your kids important life lessons, including responsibility, patience, and compassion. Every day, I tell my kids that I have the best job in the world because I am privy to the incredible bond between pets and their people. Our animals love us unconditionally and don't judge us when we've had a bad day or make a bad decision; other than a parent's love for their child, there's not much else that comes close to that.

Dr. Erin Schroeder is a veterinarian in Hartington, Nebraska and the star of Nat Geo Wild’s Heartland Docs, DVM along with her husband Dr. Ben Schroeder. (Heartland Docs, DVM airs on Nat Geo Wild Saturdays at 8/7c and season one is on Disney+.) They also have two teenage sons. Dr. Erin combines her unique sense of style and love for design to restore historic properties with her husband in their spare time.

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