Have you ever had to field questions like ‘Mom can we get a tree frog?’ ‘All my friends have a pet’ or ‘Why can’t I get a hamster?
How often does your child plead with you to let him acquire another furry, scaly, winged or slimy friend? In the course of eighteen years, a typical child will have an average of at least five different species of pets. From sharing the family dog, to bringing home carnival goldfish or rescuing a lost cat, children relish the chance to bring animals into their homes and hearts.
Interestingly parents do not always share their child’s zeal for adding a new animal to the household. Knowing that pet ownership requires a serious commitment can be costly and demanding, parents instinctively answer their children’s line of questioning with trepidation.
Whether your child is clamoring to start his own ant farm or citing one hundred reasons why a quaker parrot would complete his life, his zest to adopt a new pet has far reaching ramifications that he might not expect. While some parents openly embrace the part-time role of zookeeper, others are less willing to welcome a living menagerie into their home. Understanding to what extent a pet will impact everyone’s life is essential to successful pet ownership. Equally important is finding a pet that compliments the lifestyle and responsibility of the pet’s primary care giver.
Who is this new pet for? If your child is petitioning for a gerbil, the answer may seem obvious. Ironically, many adults realize their child’s new pet quickly becomes the parent’s responsibility. How much time does your child have to commit to a pet? Does he vacillate between a few pets that he’d like to acquire? Are you willing to dedicate time and energy to a new family member? Determining if your child is ready both mentally and physically to care for a new or additional pet will help define your role as either parent or zookeeper.
One of the greatest potentials for failure associated with pet ownership occurs when the ‘honeymoon’ is over. Bringing a cuddly new puppy or kitten home virtually guarantees at least a week of euphoric participation. Once the novelty fades, the realization sets in that the teddy bear hamster your child absolutely couldn’t live without, and vowed to completely care for, requires scheduled care and frequent interaction. Regardless of his baseball schedule practice or scout meetings, a dog still needs to get proper exercise and the cat’s litter box needs to be cleaned.
To a child, there is a drastic difference between purchasing a pet and owning one. A purchase is associated with money while ownership requires investing time, energy and affection. Although saving birthday money or earning an allowance and ‘behavior credits’ to purchase a pet are admirable, paying for an animal is a child’s first step toward ownership.
Your child’s active participation in all aspects of the care and nurturing of his pet is the best method to teach ownership and pet responsibility. Basing his level of ownership on his age, maturity and cooperative attitude helps prevent everyone’s frustration and disappointment.
Is my child ready?
Caring for a pet teaches responsibility and increases feelings of competency, however it is important to assign age appropriate tasks. Setting realistic expectations before bringing home a new pet will avoid you becoming disappointed in your child’s level of participation, and your child becoming disappointed in the level of involvement he is able to commit to.
Two and three year olds look forward to the chance to begin participating in basic pet care duties. They are terrific assistants when you’re grooming a puppy with a soft brush and can help you give a pet a bath. Young children can aid in cleaning out the gerbil or hermit crab’s tank by helping you rinse out cage items and replace clean bedding. At this stage, you can also lay the foundation for safe and respectful pet ownership by explaining the importance of kind and gentle interaction with pets.
Four and five year olds are able to join you walking a puppy, ferret or leash friendly bunny. Purchasing a leash that has two hand loops lets your child hold the bottom loop as you offer a subtle layer of protection by holding the top loop. You can also introduce them to safety hazards that threaten pets such as letting a pet off a leash, leaving items lying around that a curious pet may want to taste, or leaving the gate to the yard open.
Six to eight year olds can typically assume some of the responsibility for feeding their pets. They can accompany you to the store to purchase crickets to feed to a leopard gecko or shred vegetables to feed an iguana. Keep food for your child’s pet in small, easy to handle containers that are accessible to your child to promote his participation. Tacking a small calendar on his bedroom door or inside a frequently used cabinet serves as a visual reminder of when it’s time to feed his pet. Children this age appreciate the chance to increase their responsibility and can also add giving a pet fresh water to their repertoire.
Nine to twelve year olds should be encouraged to attend training and obedience classes with you and your family dog or partake in reading about the proper care and handling of a new guinea pig. Kids this age should also share in some of the less appealing tasks of pet ownership. Cleaning the litter box, using the ‘poop scoop’ or replacing the lining of the bird cage is dreaded by everyone. Young pet owners need to realize these chores are realistic aspects of owning a pet. After explaining the health and safety procedures to your child, burgeoning teens and tweens can follow a schedule of advanced care and maintenance procedures associated with their pet. Your child will feel empowered from gaining accurate and effective knowledge in how to care for, understand and communicate with his pet.
The circle of life
The lifespan and lifestyle of a potential pet should be heavily considered during the selection process. Children who are extremely sensitive or struggle with change may not fair well with fragile or unstable pets. High energy kids may not be suited for docile breeds of dogs or certain reptiles that require delicate handling.
Any pet owner knows that the mere mention of the demise of their pet is unthinkable. As painful as it is, children need to be aware that pets are not immortal. A clear understanding of an animal’s expected life span will aid in selecting a companion. Children also need to understand that a new pet can not replace one that has been lost or left this world. Keeping in mind that gerbils live approximately two years and certain turtles have the propensity to outlive their owners, guides your child in the right pet direction.