Dr. Michael W. Fox shares his thoughts on choosing the best pet for children. How to select the right pet for your child and determine if they are responsible enough to properly care for it.
I can't imagine childhood without a pet, whether it's gerbil, goldfish or kitten. As a boy, I took in strays and lovingly cared for them, and I vividly remember the setters and terriers and sheep dogs who were my playmates and friends. A dog, sometimes more than parents or peers, can give a child that deep sense of companionship and unconditional love that we all occasionally need in our lives.
Child psychologists have recently demonstrated the effectiveness of using pets as therapy for withdrawn and emotionally disturbed children. In a comparable way, a pet can play a vital role in the life of an average child. Every youngster sometimes feels unloved or insecure — and a pet is always accepting, is generally consistent in its behavior and can give a child a sense of relating and belonging.
In return, it's important for a child to understand a pet's body language, emotions and needs, to see it as less of a play object and more of a companion-animal, with its own rights and values. I believe that the child who is allowed to treat an animal like a toy, something to be discarded for another with more promise (or less work), will learn to have exploitative, superficial relationships with people, too. By truly caring for a pet, a child develops a sense of responsibility that carries into all social relationships, even marriage and parenthood.
But before getting a pet for your child, make sure that you want it, too. Though many children and adults may dream of a Lassie who can do everything just right without training, there's no such animal when choosing the best pets for children. And neither is there justice or common sense in foisting a pet on a child and saying, as many parents do, "Now remember, he's all yours — and your responsibility. Leave me out of it." The fact is that you must be involved. The sharing of responsibility and concern for a pet will create a closer relationship with your child. One father told me that he had felt increasingly distant from his adolescent son — until the boy got a puppy for his birthday. Father and son then had something to share, and "the old man" knew a good deal about dog training.
If a child is very young, you're better off postponing bringing in a pet. Most children under the age of three tend to treat animals like stuffed toys and think nothing of picking Puppy up by a leg or grabbing Kitty by the tail. These little ones will poke, prod and tease an animal just to see what happens. Unfortunately, this detached curiosity is potentially harmful when it's applied to living creatures. Many dogs and cats seem to understand about tiny tots and tolerate a good deal of abuse from them, but others are less accepting and patient. Constant vigilance and supervision are necessary.
If the pet is already in the family before the child is born, you must remember that your dog or cat may become jealous of the newcomer — yes, it may experience a form of "sibling rivalry"! Somehow, despite the demands of a new baby, you'll have to give extra time and attention to your pet so that it doesn't feel rejected.
Kittens, gerbils, rabbits, mice and similar pets are good for children age three or more, but I personally would wait until the child is eight or nine before buying a puppy. This is simply because there is a lot more to caring for a dog than feeding and cleaning. A child must have the maturity to assume such responsibilities as exercising and training the dog.
Preparations for a pet's joining the family should be made before its arrival. Have your child think about a place for the pet — a safe corner of its own, where it can sleep (or hide) and be alone if it chooses. Together, examine the toys that are lying about and that could injure a puppy or kitten if chewed or swallowed. Explain to children that they must be consistent in their behavior toward the pet, always gentle and firm, loving and understanding. Point out that regularity in feeding, walks, play and other routines is essential for the pet. Some children who object to parental discipline actually begin to comprehend and accept it once they see that a pet, too, must be supervised and disciplined for its own safety and for the welfare of others.
Set down a few basic rules of health for the young pet owner. Hands must always be washed after cleaning out the pet's cage or after playing with the kitten or puppy, especially before mealtime. And the animal should not be kissed on the mouth.
Though it's certainly tempting to do so (and makes a pretty picture); the new pet should not be allowed to sleep in the same bed with your child. Youngsters may feel they are comforting a small animal this way, but they are also making it dependent. Also, a young pet may fall off the bed during the night and hurt itself. When the animal is older and this habit persists, the child stands a chance of getting ringworm, fleas, mange, ticks and other infestations from his or her bedmate.
I am frequently asked what kind of dog one should get for a child. Don't get a fragile toy or miniature breed. An active little terrier, however, is fun and tough. A mongrel is ideal. Children don't need purebred dogs, and a mongrel is usually reliably adaptive and even-tempered.
Once you get your child to accept the responsibility of caring for the pet, there are many valuable lessons to be learned. Children see that a pet needs a good balanced diet — which is not necessarily made up of its favorite food. And some of a child's anxieties about earlier toilet training are quickly relived and relieved with the job of house-breaking a pet.
Caring for a sick pet is another experience that encourages empathy and compassion. The death of a pet, however, is a harder thing to face. But in our culture, where we are so often psychologically and intellectually ill-equipped to face death, I believe that a pet's death must be seen by parents as an opportunity to deal with a difficult subject in a sensitive and meaningful way. Parents may well find that the loss of a pet draws the family closer together, not only in mourning but in appreciating everyone and everything here and now.
Just as you must protect a pet from a child, it's of utmost importance that you teach children what to do if they are threatened or attacked — and, better yet, how to avoid these dangers. If bothered by a roughhousing animal, they should keep an eye on the dog but not stare. Staring could be interpreted as a challenge. Above all, a child should not run but should walk very slowly, acting nonchalant and relaxed as though the dog weren't there.
The snarling dog with bared teeth who seems serious about attacking is something else. A child should try to get to safety by backing away immediately and slowly and seeking refuge in a store or house or familiar parked car (perhaps even scramble on top of the car). If grown-ups are around, ask — or call — for help. And if a bite or scratch should occur, tell your child to report the injury to you right away, since wounds should be immediately and thoroughly cleaned and the animal observed for possible rabies.
If your child doesn't have a pet, I urge you to give him or her one. Encourage your children's involvement by presenting them with handbooks and articles on care and behavior and exposing them to films and television programs on the subject. And learn and enjoy with them. If a good relationship with animals is developed in childhood, a reverence for all life will be carried on into adulthood.
Dr. Michael W. Fox is Director of The Institute for the Study of Animal Problems. He writes a nationally syndicated newspaper column on pet care and has authored several books on pets, animal behavior and animal rights.
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