5 Tips for Choosing a Family Pet
1. Know Your Child's Developmental Capacity for Understanding Pets
Infants and toddlers can't distinguish between animals and inanimate objects. They view animals as moving stuffed toys. They can't understand that hitting will hurt your pet. A three-year-old can learn to respect a pet's boundaries, but is still unable to understand that a pet's mind works differently from his own. By the time a child is eight, he will understand that an animal's thoughts and feelings are unique both because your pet is an individual and a member of a different species.
2. Have Realistic Expectations of Your Child's Ability to Care for a Pet
An older toddler can fill a pet's food and water dishes when under adult supervision to prevent overfeeding. A five-year-old can clean a pet's cage when supervised. A 10- to 12-year-old is ready for more responsibility, including feeding and walking a pet, cleaning a litter box or cage, or participating in dog training; but parents must always make sure that pets have adequate food and water and clean environments. The responsibility of taking care of a pet will always ultimately fall on the parent – don't get a pet if you are not willing and able to care for it yourself.
3. Consider the Right Small Pet For Young Children
Hamsters and gerbils are nocturnal, making them poor pets for young children. They can be grumpy and bite when poked and awakened during the day, and may wake your children at night. Rabbits are easily frightened by loud noises, sudden movements, and rough handling, and may bite or scratch. Reptiles are not social and dislike being handled. Reptiles also carry salmonella bacteria and should never be kept in homes with children under five.
Rats and guinea pigs make great pets for young children. Rats love to be handled, are highly social and intelligent, and form bonds with humans. Rats thrive in pairs of the same sex. Guinea pigs also love being handled, bond with their owners, and rarely bite or scratch. Rats and guinea pigs are also easy to care for.
4. Find a Child-Friendly Breed When Considering Cats or Dogs
If your family is interested in getting a dog or a cat, research which breeds match your family's lifestyle. The breed of cat or dog should also tolerate loud noises and sudden movements and enjoy being handled and pet. The breed should be sociable, playful, easy going, and adaptable. Steer clear of breeds known to be territorial – they could be dangerous to young children who don't understand boundaries yet. Spay or neuter your cat or dog – it will help prevent unpredictable behavior and violent outbursts.
5. Get to Know the Animal Before Bringing it Home
Animals have individual personalities. Don't assume that an animal will display child-friendly traits based on the description of its breed or species. Take some time to get to know an animal before bringing it home. Make sure the animal readily approaches your children and displays affection without biting or scratching. Take a turn to handle the animal fairly aggressively to see how it reacts.
Consider adopting a pet from an animal shelter. Most animals are in shelters due to changes in the owner's life – not because the pet was problematic or abused. Most of the animals in shelters are happy, healthy, and vaccinated. Many shelters will spay or neuter your pet before you take it home. Shelters will also know about the animal's history, temperament, and behaviors and will be able to make sure your family finds a pet that is right for your lifestyle.