Animals and children might seem like the perfect combination, but choosing to get your child a pet should never be an impulse decision. A pet is a big responsibility, as well as one that can last for many years; the puppy you buy your 6-year-old might still be around when he leaves for college. Determining when your child is ready for pet ownership depends on whether you're expecting him to actually help take care of the pet as the lion's share of pet care generally falls on parents. Having a pet can encourage responsibility and empathy at any age.
Babies and Pets
Getting a pet when you have a baby or introducing your new baby to a pet who predates him can be tricky. New parents generally have enough to do without adding a puppy or kitten to the household; your new pet could get short shrift when it comes to the cuddling and one-on-one time it needs to become part of your family.
If you have a pet already when your baby is born, take common-sense precautions. Never leave the pet and baby alone together and keep the baby's bedroom door closed so the pet can't get in the room. Don't let your baby pull on your pet's fur or otherwise terrorize your pet, unless you want the pet to spend the next few years cowering under the couch whenever your child comes into view.
Toddlers have little idea of the dangers pets can pose and consequently often treat pets badly. If you're contemplating getting a dog who will grow up with your toddler, don't pick a small dog, for several reasons. A toddler could hurt a very small dog inadvertently; small dogs are often more nervous and worried about being injured around small, unpredictable children and could be more likely to snap. Pick a large breed dog weighing no less than 25 to 30 pounds, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers recommends. Dogs this size or larger often have more stable and patient temperaments and are less likely to be injured by a curious or rambunctious toddler.
Grade-Schoolers and Pets
Kids between the ages of 5 to 10 might be ready for a pet, as long as you’re not delusional enough to think they’ll actually take care of one by themselves. If you’re thinking of getting a dog as a family pet, waiting until your youngest turns 5 is a good idea, according to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Kids between 5 and 10 do best with a small animal that doesn’t require a lot of care, such as a goldfish or a gerbil, the ASPCA advises. At this age, you’ll still need to supervise the feeding, tank cleaning and maintenance of your newest family addition, unless you want to find Goldy floating in the tank one morning from lack of food.
If your middle-school or high-school child wants a pet, think beyond dogs or cats if you don't want to deal with pet hair or have a pet underfoot. At this age, your child might enjoy taking care of something he can keep in his room, such as a basic fish tank full of fish or small animals such as gerbils, guinea pigs, or -- if you can handle it -- reptiles such as snakes or lizards. Teens are often too busy to spend large chunks of time with a pet, so a non-traditional pet might suit them best.
Young children aged 3 to 4 can't control their angry and aggressive impulses well and could lash out at a pet, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry warns. Watch children in this age group at all times around pets, both yours and other people's. When older children are rough or abusive toward animals, it could indicate an emotional problem.
Suzanne Robin is a registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology. She also has extensive experience working in home health with developmentally delayed or medically fragile children. Robin received her RN degree from Western Oklahoma State College. She has coauthored and edited numerous books for the Wiley "Dummies" series.