When selecting a pet, keep your child’s developmental stage in mind. If this is going to be his pet – and thus he agrees to care for it – choose an animal whose needs can be met by your child. Some pets – like dogs or cats – require daily attention; they must be fed, groomed, cleaned up after and exercised. Others – like fish, turtles, birds, guinea pigs and hamsters – demand minimal care and may be a good choice for a younger child who needs to learn about what is involved in having a pet. A goldfish, for example, requires feeding only every two to three days, with its water changed only periodically; by contrast, a dog cannot be neglected for even a single day.
Also, some pets have easygoing temperaments conducive to being around children. For instance, dogs such as retrievers and beagles tend to be gentle with kids, while other breeds, such as boxers, German shepherds, pit bulls, Doberman pinschers, and miniature French poodles, may be more unpredictable. Keep the animal’s characteristics in mind when selecting a pet.
The dander (shed skin cells, hairs and feathers) of some animals can evoke allergic symptoms in certain children. If your child has allergies (eczema, hay fever, asthma) or your family has a strong history of allergic disorders, bringing a pet into the house may not be a good idea. Ask your pediatrician or a local veterinarian for advice.
Almost every type of pet is a potential source of disease that can infect your child. All reptiles, for example, can carry and transmit salmonella bacteria that can cause serious diarrhea. However, as long as your child practices reasonable hygiene, especially hand-washing after playing with a pet and before eating, they should be safe.
Children whose immune systems are suppressed, however, need to be especially careful, and generally should avoid most pets. Buy pets only from reputable breeders and shelters. Otherwise you increase the risk of purchasing an ill or diseased animal and endangering your child and yourself.
Preparing your Child for the Responsibility
Before bringing the pet home, discuss with your child the needs of the animal and everything that is involved in caring for it. Books on pet care from the library or the pet store can help him understand what is expected of him. So can a visit to a friend who has a pet, where your youngster can see firsthand what care of a pet involves.
How should you react if your child loses interest in caring for the pet several weeks or months after the family adopts it? If he has made a commitment to be the primary caretaker but does not live up to that agreement, perhaps someone else in the family would be willing to take over the responsibility. If not, let your child know that you are unwilling to jeopardize the well-being of the pet because of his neglect, and unless his interest in the animal changes, you are going to find another home for it.
During this discussion do not accuse your child of any personal inadequacy (You are too selfish to care for a pet). Instead, be as logical as possible, saying something like The dog needs a dependable caretaker, and you haven’t followed through on your promise. We need to find another family who can care for him.
(Excerpted from Caring For Your School-Age Child: Ages 5-12 from Bantam 1999)