Last reviewed by Faculty of Harvard Medical School on February 3, 2011
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
People who had a pet as a child usually have no shortage of stories and warm memories to tell about the experience. Movies, television shows and other media are filled with adorable images of children and their pets: Dogs waiting outside school windows, birds helping lonely little girls to talk, happy children playing with kittens. It's enough to make every parent run to the pet store and buy their child some sort of animal today. But timing and picking the appropriate pet for the family are key.
Back to top
The Benefits of Owning a Pet
Indeed, pets can enrich a childhood in many ways. A child who learns to care for an animal, and treat it with patience and kindness, may get invaluable training in learning to treat people the same way, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Pets can provide:
- Companionship Nothing eases the rough edges of being little like the devotion of a pet
- Hours of fun and play
- The chance to learn responsibility
- Exercise, if you get a dog that needs to be walked
- Lessons about loss Pets generally have a shorter lifespan than people so chances are you will be faced with a pet's death; if handled well, these lessons can help a child later in life.
Back to top
Make It a Family Affair
But before you go out and buy Junior that puppy, think carefully. Millions of pets are abandoned every year because the reality of owning a pet wasn't as warm and fuzzy as families thought it would be. Here are some issues to consider.
- Do you have the space? If you live in a small apartment or a home without a yard, having a dog may be challenging. (Goldfish, on the other hand, could work well).
- Do you have the time and energy to take care of a pet? The amount necessary depends on the pet of course, but all pets require upkeep and attention. Whether it's cleaning out the hamster's cage regularly or training a puppy, there's work to be done.
- Do you have the money for supplies, food, vet visits and perhaps doggie day care? These can add up to some big bills.
- Does anyone in the home have allergies? Allergies to animal dander are very common. People often minimize their allergies and think they can cope by taking medicines only to find themselves absolutely miserable once the pet is living with them. If any family member has any kind of environmental allergy (as opposed to food allergy), you should talk with your doctor about whether having a pet and which kind makes sense. If someone in the family has hay fever but has never been tested for animal allergies, getting tested might be a good idea.
Your child's age
- Before age 3 or 4, a child can be curious and rough in ways that can be dangerous to the petor to the child, if the pet retaliates. Little children are also prone to doing things like eating stuff out of the dog dish or litter box. It's not the best time to get a pet, and lots of supervision is necessary if you already have one!
- Children 5 to 10 years old are more ready for a pet. They still need supervision, and aren't capable of sole responsibility for a pet's care, but they can help out with simple tasks, such as feeding, changing the water dish or cleaning a cage.
- Children older than 10 can be responsible. But adults should always check to be sure the animal is being cared for. Many older children have lots of activities that can get in the way of caring for a pet.
Your child's temperament and personality
You know your child best. Some are more responsible and empathetic than others; some can be impatient, rough, or have attention spans that are too short to make consistent care of an animal realistic.
Back to top
Choosing the Right Pet
So, discuss things ahead of time as a family. Surprising the kids with a puppy may seem like a great idea, but it's better to plan carefully for the care and upkeep of the animal before you buy it. There are lots of pets to choose from. Think about what fits your child and your family's situation, best.
- Fish They don't require much upkeep, are easy for younger children to care for, and can bring hours of enjoyment.
- Rodents, such as hamsters and guinea pigs These can be very good pets for younger children.
- Reptiles, such as turtles or lizards They can carry salmonella, so careful washing of hands and surfaces is necessary, but they can be fun pets.
- Cats They require more upkeep but are independent animals and don't need as much space as dogs.
- Dogs Think carefully before adopting or purchasing a dog. They require a lot of time, energy and money to care for well. You need to be willing to spend time training them. Children need to be gently reminded that animals, like people, need food, water and exercise. Read Are You Ready For a Dog? from the American Kennel Club (AKC).
The website of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is another great source of information about how to choose and care for a pet.
If a dog is right for your family:
- Research the breed carefully. There are over 150 breeds recognized by the AKC. Each one has its own unique temperament, appearance, activity level and set of needs. The AKC has information to help you find the right breed of dog for you and your family.
- Use a responsible breeder.
- If you use a rescue league, find out everything you can about the history of the dog.
- Read the AKC's Responsible Dog Owner Pet Promise. It's a good reminder for both new and veteran dog owners that raising a healthy dog is about more than just playtime and pampering. Training, grooming, nutrition, exercise and veterinary care are equally important in nurturing your best friend.
Back to top
The Bottom Line
Remember that parents should always set a good example when it comes to caring for animals. After all, having a pet is a family affair. Enjoying it and caring for it together can be one of the best things about having a pet.
Back to top
Claire McCarthy, M.D. is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.