Selecting the Best Pets for Children

Choosing the best pets for children can be a daunting task. Dr. Michael W. Fox shares his expertise on what type of pet to bring into the home, when to get a pet for children and helping children care for pets.

| January/February 1988

  • Choosing children's pets
    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.

  • Choosing children's pets

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. 

Selecting the Best Pets for Children

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Child psychologists have recently demonstrated the effectiveness of using pets as therapy for withdrawn and emotionally disturbed children.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.


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