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Pets and Children

Pets can provide a child with many benefits. However, you need to think about what owning a pet will mean to your family. It is important that you chose the right kind of pet, and that you have realistic expectations of your child, yourself, and the pet. Bringing a pet into the family is not a decision that should be made lightly.

What are the benefits?

Pets offer friendship, unconditional love, and fun. Pets can make a child happy and help to build self-esteem.

Helping care for a pet can help teach children responsibility. Depending on your child's age, assign tasks to help care for the animal. This can help children learn patience and kindness. If you are thinking of getting a pet just to teach your child responsibility, think again. The parents, not the child, are ultimately responsible for taking care of the pet.

Having a pet can help develop empathy. Children are by nature self-centered. When they learn to think about the needs of their pet, they begin to understand the world outside of themselves and their own needs. Pets can comfort your child with touch and be a way to start conversations with other people. Pets may also help your child feel safer and more secure.

There are health benefits that come from owning a pet. Walking or playing with a dog are great ways for both the dog and the child to get exercise. Pets can help children get away from the computer and the TV and move around. Having a pet can lower high blood pressure, prevent heart disease, and reduce depression. By exposing children to germs, pets may help build children's immune systems. Children who own pets may have better school attendance than those without pets.

Pets can help children learn about health issues. Going to veterinarian appointments can help teach preventive care and how to treat illness or injuries.

Reading about the kind of pet they have or attending training classes for the pet can help children improve learning skills.

What are the drawbacks?

There are many costs when you own a pet. These include the cost to buy or adopt the pet, food and supplies, and veterinary visits, which can be quite costly.

Caring for a pet takes time. Depending on the type of pet you have, someone may need to groom and exercise the pet. If you chose a pet such as a cat or a dog, plan time to spend playing with them. It takes time and attention to build a good relationship between your family and your pet. Also be sure you are ready to take care of the pet as long as it lives, which could be 10 to 20 years for some pets.

Be sure you have enough space to have an animal. Most animals need space for exercise and play. If you rent, check your rental policy to see if you are allowed pets.

Make sure that all family members agree to having a pet. Also, make sure that no one is allergic to the pet.

Some children are very shy and afraid of some animals. Other children have no fear of animals and can be at risk for bites and other problems. If you are thinking of getting a pet, make sure that your child knows the right ways to treat animals. Read books or visit shelters to give children some practice being around the kind of animal you are considering before you bring one into your home. Teach your child not to chase or hit any animal.

Besides providing love, joy, and comfort to a child, pets can also mean fleas, pets chewing on household items or favorite toys, and noise. It is best to be prepared for these things.

How can I help my child be a good pet owner?

Research the kind of animal you want. Mature animals can be a good choice for younger children, since they do not need to be trained like a young puppy or kitten. A pet like a goldfish can be an good way to begin to teach a child about the responsibilities of a pet. Snakes, lizards, rodents, ferrets, and baby chicks and ducklings should be kept out of households that contain children younger than 5 years of age. About 11% of salmonella illnesses in children are thought to come from contact with lizards, turtles and other reptiles. Hamsters also can carry this germ, which can cause severe diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps.

Don't get an animal at holiday time. As cute as a puppy from Santa sounds, the holidays can be overwhelming both for the pet adjusting to a new environment, and to the family, who will be too busy to give the pet the attention it needs.

Always supervise toddlers and preschool children around all animals. Young children do not have the ability to control their impulses. Angry and aggressive behaviors, or even being too affectionate, can hurt a pet and be dangerous to your child. Don't overwhelm a pet with too much attention.

Children will learn the right ways to treat an animal by watching the way that you treat the animal. Always treat animals with gentleness and respect. Show your child the importance of proper diet and exercise. Your child's friends may need to learn the right way to act around your pet too. Always make sure that children wash their hands after playing with a pet.

Keep the area where your animal's bathroom or toileting area disinfected and clean. Make sure this area is away from areas where children play. Also, keep feeding areas away from small children. The food can be a choking hazard to small children. In addition, the animal may not react well to having someone near their food. Do not allow children to disturb an animal when it's sleeping or eating. Pets need "down time" just like children do.

Good veterinary care is important. Worm your pets and get vaccinations as recommended. It is best to spay or neuter your pets. Spaying and neutering helps dogs and cats live longer, healthier lives. They are also less likely to bite, run away, or get into fights. While the experience of watching an animal mate or give birth may be a positive one, this may not be in the best interest of the pet or the family.

Never allow children to mistreat or abuse an animal. If your child is very aggressive toward a pet, seek professional help for the child and find the animal a new home.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-11-03
Last reviewed: 2011-05-04
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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