Every parent has heard the familiar request at one point or another: “Can we get a puppy? Or a kitty?” You smile, because puppies and kittens are cute, but you also groan at the thought of taking on another responsibility.
While no one is going to claim that pets aren’t worth it, we all know that owning one adds a lot to your daily to-do list. It doesn’t need to go to school or be lectured, but you do have to take care of it. That always consists of securing some basic needs for your pet, like food and water — but, depending on the pet, this can also include paying for medications, obedience training, or special equipment.
Understandably, this can be a lot for a kid to handle. While some kids are especially responsible, many parents end up caring for their “child’s” pet. Considering the many benefits of pet ownership, some might consider this a fair price to pay. On the other hand, if don’t have the time to take care of another living thing on your own, your child will need to shoulder some of the responsibility.
Here’s how to know if your child is ready to be responsible for a pet.
Take a Trial Run
The first step in making sure adopting a pet works for your family is to spend time around the type of animal you’re considering. Perhaps your son is in love with the idea of a puppy, but if he hasn’t been exposed to dogs, you can’t assume it’s a good idea. Offer to dog-sit for a friend or family member who has an out of town trip coming up. Or spend an hour a week volunteering at your local shelter and give your child plenty of supervised time with one dog at a time. “A fearful child is more likely to make a mistake around animals,” says KC Theisen, director of pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States. If your child doesn’t seem comfortable, you can make take time to slowly build up your child’s comfort level in ways other than getting your own pet right away.
Understanding an Animal’s Needs
If your child does well on the trial run, it’s time to consider the right type of animal for your family and your home. Your child has to have a certain degree of empathy in order to care for an animal. She will need to understand what’s required for the pet to survive (food, water, shelter) as well as certain things to be happy (socialization, toys, exercise). Your child needs to be mature enough to understand that this animal is not just a living toy, but that it has feelings too. This is more obvious in some animals than others. Dogs are known for their enthusiasm and affection. Pet hamsters or snakes aren’t as easy to read.
While you can’t predict when your child will have this empathetic capacity, you should be able to tell fairly easily if she’s ready. There is evidence that owning a pet increases children’s emotional intelligence. Caring for the animal can help her understand even something that looks very different has to go through the same things we all do. Soon she will realize this is another living being that requires care and love, and this can deepen their own emotional range.
While animals can certainly feel, they’ll never develop intellectually the way your child will. Dogs are about as smart as a two-year-old, and they’re among the smartest pets we have. They can’t reason the way that we do. They don’t know the difference between their chew toys and your child’s favorite shoe.
Additionally, while you can talk with another human and work out a problem, animals are more instinctual than even toddlers. Your kid might be frustrated that your pet isn’t acting the way that they want them to, but remind them that your pet doesn’t understand how they’re supposed to act. As such, your child needs to know how to calm an angry cat, handle a snake, or how to calm a dog down. These sort of things might not be intuitive to your child, so make sure that they are aware of any particular behavioral patterns your pet might exhibit.
Be Sure Your Family Has Time to Care for an Animal
If your child is involved in a myriad of activities, a care-intensive pet might not be the best option. Think about what commitments your child has already made. Pets like dogs, horses, or ferrets require more attention than a goldfish. Make sure you’re getting a pet whose physical and emotional needs fit into your family’s schedule.
Some pets will require special time investments depending on where you live. Horse owners, for example, frequently have to pay to board their horse, assuming they don’t live somewhere with large pastures. The cost of boarding alone is usually $400-500, but you also have to factor in the time spent traveling to the stable. This is a significant time commitment itself, not even factoring in time with the horse.
Although you can house most pets in your own home, remind your child of any special considerations concerning where you live. If you have some late sleepers in your home, pet birds need to be kept quiet, your kids will need to supervise cats around any lilies in your garden, and naturally curious dogs will need to be taught how to swim if you have a pool. These are all time commitments that your child should be aware of. They might not be mature enough to have this degree of forethought, so you’ll have to spell it out for them.
Almost every kid wants a pet at one point or another, and animals have the potential to unlock empathy and responsibility in your child. However, they are not a commitment to be taken lightly. Every animal will have a different degree of attention required, but, much like a child, it’s hard to understand just how much effort they’ll take until you have one.