Life Times Newsletter

January/February 04
Vol. 6, No. 1

Kids, pets and parents: ‘Mom, can I have a ………?’

Hardly a household exists with a child age 4 or over that has not heard the above question. It’s usually followed by: dog, cat, gerbil, bird, snake or some other creature not of the human species.

Unless we are professed animal lovers, the answer to this question may not be an easy one. Nor should it be. Caring for an animal requires time, energy and commitment.

While our children will adamantly assure us that they will handle every pet-related obligation, we know in our hearts that the ultimate responsibility will fall upon us.

Unless you already have a pet when your baby is born, experts recommend that you wait until the child is at least 3 years of age. Rather than a dog or a cat, you might consider a guinea pig as the first pet for your little tike. These small creatures like to be held, seldom bite, and whistle when they are happy. (Sounds like good characteristics for a spouse, doesn’t it?)

Around age 10, most children can assume the brunt of responsibility for a pet. But they will need close supervision and many reminders. Please don’t punish the pet for the child’s neglect by leaving it hungry, thirsty or in unkempt condition. While pet care can help teach responsibility, it might be better to begin with inanimate objects, such as rooms and homework. Make a lifetime commitment to your new family member.

There are many pluses to owning a pet. Pets, with their unconditional love and humorous antics, not only entertain us, but they are good for our health. Studies show that pet owners are less likely to suffer heart disease, depression, migraine headaches and colds. They tend to have lower cholesterol and live longer.

Kids probably derive even greater benefits from pet connections. The bonds that children create with animals tend to be therapeutic in nature. A facility for abused girls in South Carolina numbers among its residents a wide variety of counselors in the form of horses, rabbits, dogs, cats and even a donkey to help the girls learn empathy and unconditional love. They have ample evidence that it works.

A pediatric hospital in Ohio uses a miniature pony named Petie to brighten the day for children with life-threatening illnesses. A Saint Bernard named Hannah provides homesick Maryville University students with some canine empathy. On a personal note, I once observed a support dog named Dusty teach the concept of “over and under” to an autistic child … a feat we mere mortals despaired could ever happen.

And here’s an interesting statistic from a University of Warwick study: Children from pet-owning families spend significantly more time attending school than those who don’t have a pet, and these same kids show evidence of more stable immune systems. Go figure!

Pets can be safe recipients of secrets and private thoughts; provide lessons about life, reproduction, birth, illnesses and death; provide connection to nature; and teach respect for other living things.

While pets can be valuable additions to your household, they are not right for every family. Dogs, cats and other furry critters usually shed. If you prefer a home free of furry tumbleweeds or you have an allergic family member, an animal in the household may be unwise.

Pets are expensive. With food and veterinary care, an average cat costs $350-$400 per year, and a small to medium dog about $400- $500 annually.

Pets need exercise. Dogs need to be walked or run. Cats need some vigorous playtime. They all need to be cuddled and loved. Ask yourself if your schedule allows for this extra time and energy requirement.

Pets, like kids, sometimes do things we don’t like. They may chew, potty inappropriately, track in mud and try to please us with items we consider less than desirable. Will this type of antic amuse or anger you?

If you decide to get a pet, educate yourself first. Know what you are getting into. If you decide a pet is right for your family, adopt from a local shelter if possible. There are so many wonderful pets awaiting you.

Then, make a lifetime commitment to your new family member. Now, there’s a lesson in responsibility that your children will easily understand!

Rosilee Trotta, LCSW
Urban Youth & Family Specialist


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University of Missouri Extension Editor: Roxanne T. Miller