THE PET READY CHILD
AGE, ALLERGIES, PERSONALITIES & OTHER FACTORS
by Lorel Kane
Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, even those 101 Dalmatians go a long way toward influencing a child’s desire to have a pet. The bonding between a child and a pet can be amazing. Caring for a pet teaches children responsibility, helps them develop self-confidence, communication skills, a sense of love, and compassion.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says “A child who learns to care for an animal and treat it kindly and patiently, may get invaluable training learning to treat people the same way.” But bringing the perfect pet home at the perfect time for your child can be a challenge.
The wrong pet at the wrong time could be catastrophic. The pet could hurt the child, or vice verse. At the very least the child may only have a passing interest in the pet, making for a very unhappy or neglected animal. “I don’t know if there is a right age. It depends on the circumstances,” according to Meera Nadlal, Public Relations Manager for the Houston SPCA. She says a number of factors must come into play, aside from age, such as the level of development of your child and the animal, what else is going on in your lives, and how much time you can devote to the pet, since ultimately the parent is the responsible person.
Here are some basic guidelines.
“The minute you know you’re pregnant, you should be preparing your pet,” Nandlal said. “Our shelter often sees cats and dogs given up because there’s a new baby in the house. That doesn’t need to happen.”
Nandlal says pets have routines. They know when they will be going outside, when they’re going to eat, when it’s time to play. After a new baby comes, all those routines go out the window. So, while you’re waiting for the stork, start changing those routines. “Maybe cutting down some of the time with your pet, introduce a change in feeding time, make changes in their exercise routines,” Nandlal suggests. She adds that the most important step to take is training. “Make sure that dogs respond to your commands: sit, stay, heel, so when the baby is there the dog is listening to you.”
Another good idea is to familiarize your dog with how the new baby will smell. Introduce the pet to different odors like lotion, powder, blankets, even diapers.
More than likely when baby comes you will take all sorts of precautions with locks on cabinet doors, or safety plugs in your electrical outlets. Take precautions with your pet, too, by making sure your dog or cat knows that baby’s room is off limits. Those comfy cribs and baby bedding are mighty enticing for an afternoon snooze.
Toddlers are curious. They’re drawn to animals, but they can’t yet understand that pulling or poking is wrong, that some animals get defensive and aggressive if you touch their food or water bowls while they’re eating, that putting their hands in a litter box is bad, or that their pet’s food and treats are not for them. At this stage it may not be wise to bring an animal into the house. If one is already there then parents must be extra vigilant.
AGES THREE TO FIVE YEARS OLD
At this age children still are not able to care for a large animal on their own. Nandlal says a guinea pig may be a good starter pet. “Children are learning abut contact, they’re learning about empathy. The child can help with the responsibility of giving food and water to the guinea pig,” she said.
AGES FIVE TO TEN YEARS OLD
This is the age range when children begin to deal with bigger pets. They are capable of taking charge of meals, walks, and even cleaning up after the pets.
AGES TEN TO THIRTEEN YEARS OLD
This is probably the best time for children and pets to bond. Nandlal said, “They’re more mature, may have greater interest in animals and can take on more responsibility in caring for them.”
If you have ever been allergic to dogs or cats, chances are your child will be, too. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says as many as 70% of children will develop pet allergies if both parents have them.
While the most obvious way to avoid an allergic reaction is to avoid contact, exposure may actually be a better idea.
In 2002, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study stating: “Exposure to two or more dogs or cats in the first year of life may reduce subsequent risk of allergic sensitization to multiple allergens during childhood.”
Failing that — do your research. Some breeds of dogs and cats produce little or no dander, which is often the source of allergies. And remember, when you’re picking a pet for a child, you’re picking a pet for the whole family. “A pet can live anywhere from 10 to 15 years, so that’s a lifetime commitment and a lifelong responsibility,” Nandlal says. Make choosing your pet a family affair — and remember while puppies and kittens may be unbelievably cute, they may not be the best choices. An older, wiser, mellower animal is often a better fit, especially for young children.