Pets are a part of many children’s lives. Parental involvement, open discussion, and planning are necessary to help make pet ownership a positive experience for everyone. A child who learns to care for an animal and treat it kindly and patiently may get invaluable training in learning to treat people the same way.
Choosing an Appropriate Pet
Many kinds of pets can bring children pleasure, but, it is important to choose a type of pet that is right for your family, home, and lifestyle; and one, preferably, that your child can help provide care. Any animal can be a potential threat to children so parents should never allow their young child to spend unmonitored time with the animal and they need to be especially cautious about having aggressive animals as pets. Exotic or unusual animals may be difficult to care for and should be considered very carefully.
Caring for a Pet
Taking care of a pet can help children develop social skills. However, certain guidelines apply:
- Since very young children (under the age of 3-4 years) do not have the maturity to control their aggressive and angry impulses, they should be monitored with pets at all times.
- Young children (under 10 years) are unable to care for dogs and cats on their own.
- Parents must oversee the pet’s care even if they believe their child is old enough to care for a pet.
- Children should be reminded in a gentle, not scolding way, that animals, like people, need food, water, and exercise.
- If a child persistently neglects a pet, and the parent isn’t willing to be responsible for the animal, a new home may have to be found for the pet.
- Parents serve as role models. Children learn responsible pet ownership by observing their parents’ behavior.
- Although a pet may have been obtained for a child, it is important to remember children will not have the financial means available to appropriately provide the preventative and medical care that a pet will need during its lifetime and this will be the responsibility of the parent.
Advantages of Pet Ownership
Children raised with pets show many benefits. Developing positive feelings about pets can contribute to a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence. Positive relationships with pets can aid in the development of trusting relationships with others. A good relationship with a pet can also help in developing non-verbal communication, compassion, and empathy. Pets can serve other purposes for children:
- They can be safe recipients of secrets and private thoughts–children often talk to their pets, like they do their stuffed animals.
- They provide lessons about life; illnesses, accidents, death, and bereavement.
- They can help develop responsible behavior in the children who care for them.
- They provide a connection to nature.
- They can teach respect for other living things.
Other physical and emotional needs fulfilled by pet ownership include:
- Physical activity
- Comfort contact
- Love, loyalty, and affection
- Experience with the loss if a pet is lost or dies.
Although most children are gentle and appropriate with pets, some may be overly rough or even abusive. If such behavior persists, it may be a sign of significant emotional problems. Any child who abuses, tortures or kills animals should be referred to a child and adolescent psychiatrist for a comprehensive evaluation.
Adapted from Copyright © 2015 by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.