By Dr Eugene Brink
You’re thinking about treating your child by getting them a pet they can adore and spend time with. The spin-off is that they are taught some responsibility by caring for a living being.
While this all sounds wonderful, it is advisable that you first assess what animal is best for them. Also, it is a long-term commitment and the care of such an animal will eventually in all likelihood fall unto you.
First of all. . .
There are several handy guidelines to keep in mind when taking such a big decision.
The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that you wait until your child is sufficiently mature to handle a pet – usually around the age of five or six. “Younger children have difficulty distinguishing an animal from a toy, so they may inadvertently provoke a bite through teasing or mistreatment.”
If your child is ready, be sure to discuss the needs of the animal and what goes into caring for it. Books with pictures and witnessing first-hand how friends and family care for a pet are great ways of educating your child.
“First and foremost, the family should take a look at their schedule to ensure that the pet will be adequately cared for and they can meet the pet’s individual needs,” says Pia Silvani, director at the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center in North Carolina.
Different strokes for different animals
Dogs are frisky and fun to be with, but keep in mind that not all dogs are the same. “Every dog is an individual with a unique personality. Whether a dog is well-mannered around children and babies has nothing to do with the dog’s breed type, it’s more about whether the dog has been properly socialised with children early on,” says Silvani.
And if your family is away from home a lot, a doggy is probably not the best choice because they require daily and ample care. Puppies must be housebroken, require daily exercise, immunisations and plenty of love. Dale Kiefer and Rena Goldman from Healthline.com report that child-friendly dogs include labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, boxers and beagles. Boxers, German shepherds and miniature French poodles may be more unpredictable.
Again, some cats are more independent than others. Nevertheless, they all require a degree of commitment and care, such as feeding and cleaning of its litterbox. A cat is a better choice than a dog when your family has a small living space.
“Cats can bite or scratch when they’re not enjoying certain situations, so it’s a good idea to give your child a crash course in ”kitty etiquette”. Teach them that not every cat likes to be held, or petted or snuggled, and that their quirks are what so many cat lovers grow to love,” says pet expert Amy Jamieson.
“Rabbits are active and social, and they need plenty of stimulation or they can potentially get bored and destructive. If you plan to let your bunny explore your home, you’ll need to do some serious bunny-proofing because they like to chew,” says Jamieson. “They require a rather large enclosure to dwell in, partly because they can grow in size as they age.”
Smaller mammals ─ such as hamsters, guinea pigs, and gerbils – are fairly low-maintenance and need only limited space to thrive. Regular, gentle handling is advisable as rodents – especially hamsters – might bite when sensing a threat. Rats make good pets due to their intelligence and enjoyment of human companionship.
Lizards, birds and fish
Lizards are low-maintenance and suitable to families with busy schedules. Birds are social and intelligent pets, but some birds such as parrots could be loud and destructive. Fish may be the best first pet for your child. However, you will need several initial devices such as a tank, aerators, filters and so forth. Many need to be fed regularly.
Amy Jamieson, 26 October 2018, “The 9 best pets for kids — and how to choose one”, https://www.care.com/c/stories/6050/best-pets-for-kids/.
Dale Kiefer and Rena Goldman, 2019, “8 best pets for kids”, https://www.healthline.com/health/best-pets-for-kids.
Healthychildren.org, 4 November 2019, “Tips for choosing the right pet for your family”, https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/at-home/Pages/Before-Choosing-a-Pet.aspx.