Whether they are dogs or cats, hamsters, fish or parakeets, pets are found in millions of American households. Most families at least consider acquiring a pet, and for children an animal to love and care for can provide one of their most memorable experiences. The attachment to animals developed in childhood can last a lifetime.
By the middle years most youngsters are capable of having their own pet. Not only can they fully enjoy the animal, but they are old enough to assume some or all of the responsibility for its care. At the same time, the presence of a pet can teach important lessons about showing love, respect, sensitivity and gentleness toward another living creature.
A youngster’s self-esteem can also be improved by having a pet, largely as she recognizes that she is capable of handling the caretaking duties. She might also feel particularly good about herself if she becomes an expert on the type of pet she has and perhaps competes for awards in pet shows or 4-H programs. Pets can help children gain status or acceptance among their peers too.
Children who have a dog or cat or are around dogs and cats during the first year of life are reported to be healthier and have fewer respiratory infections than children without contact to these animals. In the study, “Respiratory Tract Illnesses During the First Year of Life: Effect of Dog and Cat Contacts,” in the August 2012 issue of Pediatrics (published online July 9) researchers followed 397 children in Finland from pregnancy to the age of 1 year and reported the amount of dog or cat contact they had each week. Researchers found that even though respiratory infections and infectious symptoms are frequent during the first year of life, children with early dog contact seem to have fewer respiratory infectious symptoms and diseases, especially ear infections, and needed a shorter course of antibiotics. Cat ownership also showed a protective effect on infants, but not as strong as dogs. Children living in homes in which dogs spend indoors temporarily or often had the lowest risk of infections and respiratory tract infections. Both the average weekly and yearly contact with dogs were associated with less morbidity in general, leading the authors to conclude that animal contacts may have an influence on the maturation of the immune system in infancy, leading to shorter duration of infections and better resistance to respiratory infections during early childhood.
Despite the benefits, you and your child should not take lightly the decision to adopt a pet. Make sure you and your youngster understand that the responsibilities associated with a pet are continuous – and if she commits herself to bathing the dog or cleaning the litter box, it is a long-term obligation, one that will probably last for years.
Also, while having a pet can be very rewarding, an improperly handled animal can be provoked to bite. Be sure that your youngster appreciates that keeping a live animal as a pet is a serious undertaking.
A pet’s love is unconditional, and the bond that develops between child and animal can become important to both of them. Even when children are rejected by friends and are feeling lonely, they can still depend on their pet for acceptance.
Latchkey children often rely on a pet for companionship and sometimes protection. Dogs, especially big ones, can be excellent guards. Be sure you choose the breed of dog carefully – a large, overly aggressive dog can cause great harm.
Pets are also often recommended for children with chronic illnesses and handicaps, serving as good companions for these youngsters. Some psychotherapists use animals as part of their treatment of disturbed children, employing dogs or cats as a way to teach love, friendship and responsibility.
When a Pet Dies
The loss of a pet – either through death or because it has run away – can be emotionally traumatic for a child. If your family loses a pet, spend some time with your youngster, helping him understand his feelings and deal with his sadness. Do not make light of the loss or of his hurt. Share with him any sorrow over the pet that you may be experiencing. This is a good chance for you to teach him something about life and death.
Occasionally a child will feel guilty over the traumatic death of a pet, perhaps because the dog was not properly tied up. In cases like this be especially sensitive to what your child is undergoing. Do not punish him for his lack of responsibility; the consequences of his behavior are lesson enough.
Sometimes acquiring a new pet can help the child get over the loss of the old one. Explain to your youngster that while another animal cannot replace the pet that has died, it can become a new companion and something he can love. Let him help decide if and when the family should get a new pet, and let him participate in the choice.
(Excerpted from Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5-12 Bantam 1999)