By Christina Elston
Call of the Wild
My husband spotted a tarantula on our floor the other day while feeding the dog. He assumed it was a rubber imposter placed there by our daughter, and called her over to share the joke. And then it moved.
Did we squish it? Spray it? Jump up on a chair and scream? Of course not! We rescued it and set it free outside in its natural habitat. Because 11-year-old Lauren, Animal Planet devotee and zoo camp graduate, is a friend to all creatures. This phenomenon began with her first word, "cat," prompted by her first pet, a gray tiger-stripe named Gretel. Respect and reverence for animal life are among the many benefits of having a pet in the family. From companionship to a learned sense of responsibility, pets bring so much to children - and their parents.
"Pets benefit children in so many ways," says Kathy Santo, who has 20 years of experience as a dog trainer and 10 as a mom. "The payoff of undying loyalty and companionship is something that defies words!"
Naturalist and wildlife photographer Loren Wenegard grew up around the petting zoo his parents ran for disabled children. With five siblings, Wenegard often sought the quiet company of one of the zoo's white-tailed deer. "A deer is a pretty silent animal," he says. "She was a great listener for me."
Pets also taught Wenegard a sense of responsibility. "It's a little different than cleaning up your room, when you have an animal that needs to be fed and cared for," he says. Beyond the natural kinship that can develop between kids and animals, what do pets offer parents - aside from another mouth to feed? Actually, says Faith Maloney, director of animal care for the Utah-based Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the family pet can offer a sense of calm.
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Best Friends bills itself as the nation's largest sanctuary for abandoned or abused cats, dogs and other animals. Among its missions are rehabilitating pets that have suffered and then finding good homes for them. "There's a balance in having an animal in the home," Maloney says of family pet ownership. "It's a reassuring presence, the presence of unconditional love."
Taking Responsibility: Are You Ready?
Before considering whether your child is ready to become a pet owner, however, take time to think about whether you are ready. Because, ultimately, you will be responsible for the animal.
"When you take on the responsibility of a pet, it is a total family responsibility. It isn't just a kid's responsibility," stresses Maloney.
In fact, Bonnie Beaver, M.S., D.V.M., president-elect of the American Veterinary Medical Association, offers this note of caution: Parents who don't want a pet shouldn't get one just to please their kids. "For parents who are not comfortable with pets, they're a very bad idea."
Animal advocates say children are old enough for pet ownership by age 3. Psychologist Patricia Farrell, Ph.D., author of Be Your Own Therapist, suggests starting younger children with less demanding pets (such as a fish). "Age 3 would be appropriate for a pet that doesn't require a great deal of maintenance. Age 4 to 5, depending on the child, would be about right for some responsibility for a gerbil, dog or cat." By the age of 4 or 5, your child can lend a hand in daily pet feeding and care. Just take attention span, ability and interest level into account.
And remember that pet care is more palatable as a family activity than as an assigned chore, Beaver adds. Kathy Santo started her 5-year-old daughter with a goldfish. "We look at the calendar on the wall," she explains. "Every other day, the fish gets a pinch of food, and once a week we change the water." Her 10-year-old son has a hamster, and was allowed to get a dog this year.
During the first few weeks with his Jack Russell terrier, Santo says her son "went overboard" taking care of him. After the "honeymoon period," she pitched in with reminders, a written training chart and a posted feeding schedule.
Picking the Perfect Pet
Beaver suggests talking to a veterinarian before diving into a pet purchase. Explain your living situation and preferences, and get the vet's opinion about what type of pet is best for your family.
You can also visit pet stores, libraries and Web sites for information. Ask kennel clubs and animal rescue organizations for their recommendations. If you're looking into a less-common pet, seek out families who own one.
Go out there and get the information before you bring the pet home," Maloney advises. Consider the size of the animal, its needs and the cost of veterinary care. And consider the "interactivity level" of the animal. "Do your homework," says Nancy Peterson, an issues specialist with the Humane Society of the United States. "If your child is really looking for a pet that he can hold and touch, a fish might not be the best choice."
Looking for something a little different in a family pet? Animals once found only in rain forests or African grasslands might now be as close as the pet store in your local mall. But finding it in a pet shop doesn't guarantee that it will make a good pet. Wenegard - who with his wife, Amanda Lumry, created the Adventures of Riley series of children's animal books - says that even wild animals born in captivity have "innate instincts that will eventually surface."
Animals taken from the wild will continue to instinctively protect their living space, food and more. A child or even an adult who doesn't understand this could get hurt if the animal lashes out as part of its protective instincts. And the pet could end up being returned to the store or, worse, destroyed.
Lumry also urges parents to consider the chain of supply and demand. "With cats and dogs, you're not supporting a market that takes an animal from the wild," she says. Many families don't have the knowledge or resources to care for exotic animals, and kids can lose interest quickly. "They're new, and then the new wears off and we're on to something else that's new," says Beaver. "Meanwhile, you're stuck with this animal for however long its lifespan is."
The Holiday Pet
Timing is another important factor in your decision to bring a pet home. And at this time of year, Santo says it can be tempting to indulge a holiday fantasy: "I know - we'll get little Mikey a puppy for Christmas! We'll get up really early and put it in a little crate under the tree, and when Mikey wakes up, it will be so magical!"
"For about 30 minutes," Santo says wryly, "until the puppy pees on the floor or on the new toys that Santa brought, or starts chewing the leg of your couch."
Hectic holiday schedules, dangerous decorations and holiday guests make the season a bad time to bring home a new pet. Plus, excitement over the idea of a holiday pet shouldn't be at the expense of the careful consideration that should go into whether your kids are ready for pet ownership or which pet is the right one for your family. Instead, consider giving books or videos about pet care, or a gift certificate from a shelter. That way, the whole family can select the pet together once the holidays are over.
'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?'
The pet store may be the obvious venue for finding that perfect puppy, rabbit or caged bird. But animal advocates urge families to consider adopting an animal from a shelter or rescue organization.
There are many advantages to adopting from a shelter, says Peterson. Shelters offer classes and advice lines, and have a variety of pets available beyond cats and dogs. Many evaluate the temperament and personality of their animals to help you make a good match. Shelters can also be a great place to find adult animals, who have reached their full size and shown something of their personality, Peterson says.
And don't forget the teaching opportunity of taking in a pet in need. "That adoption will most probably save the life of a beautiful animal," Maloney notes. "What a great message to give to the child. We can teach a lesson of empathy and caring and understanding, rather than just going to the pet store in the mall."
Rescue organizations can also be a good resource: Many are geared toward a certain breed of dog or cat, for example, if that is what you're looking for. Responsible breeders who pay as much attention to an animal's temperament as they do to appearance are also a good pet resource, says Beaver. This is particularly important if you are searching for a particular breed and want to avoid the pitfalls that can result from overbreeding. Golden Retrievers, for example, have long been thought to be among the gentlest of family dogs, but overbreeding has been blamed for some of the aggressiveness now seen more often in these dogs.
No matter where you get your pet, "Make sure that the animal comes with the opportunity to bring it back if there is something wrong," Beaver stresses. And schedule a veterinary checkup right away to make sure the animal is healthy.
Walk on the Safe Side
Even the most mild-mannered pet should never, ever be left alone with a small child. Little ones could squeeze a guinea pig too tightly, or accidentally tumble onto a dog or cat. And an animal that is hurt will strike out. "The thing to remember is that dogs and cats have teeth and claws," says Beaver. Children can also fail to recognize an animal's signals that it wants to be left alone. "Even adults get scratched and bitten by their pets," Peterson explains, "so how could you expect a child to read those subtle signs?"
While your child is learning, supervise, supervise, supervise. Teach children to move more slowly and gently around a pet. Teach them not to pull a cat's tail or to hug a dog too tightly around the neck. Give your pet some quiet time away from children, Beaver suggests, and teach kids to let their pets come to them.
If a reptile is the heart's desire of your family, keep in mind that these pets also carry the risk of salmonella, bacteria that can result in a potentially fatal intestinal infection. According to Leonard Marcus, M.D., D.V.M., of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, you can contract salmonella from handling reptiles, or even from your bathtub or sink after a reptile has been in it.
Susan Tellem, RN, of American Tortoise Rescue, recommends thorough hand-washing with antibacterial soap after handling a reptile or its cage. Keep reptiles away from the kitchen and dining room, and away from other pets. Wear gloves and face protection - and don't eat or drink - while cleaning cages or changing the water. And, obviously, don't kiss your pet reptile.
If you are pregnant and have a pet cat in your home, keep in mind that you may be in danger of contracting toxoplasmosis. This infection can be transferred to the unborn child, causing miscarriage or birth defects. The Humane Society of the United States advises pregnant women to ask someone else to handle litter box duty, or to wear rubber gloves when changing cat litter.
The Universal Skill of Caring
Despite the time, money and energy that goes into caring for the family pet, few parents would trade the wonderful moments that come when it all goes well. In learning to care for an animal, kids also learn to care for all creatures. And whether that means a pet, children of their own, a friend in need, or an aged parent or grandparent, caregiving is a lifelong experience.
Caring for animals teaches empathy, says Maloney, "which is what we're really trying to do with our children - to teach an empathetic relationship with something outside of themselves, to be conscious of the world around them."
Christina Elston is a health writer and senior editor at Dominion Parenting Media. Read her blog Health-E on PArenthood.com