One Expert Tells All

When Is My Child Ready … for a Pet?

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What you need to know before you bring a feathered, finned, or four-legged friend into your home.

Ari Brown, MD, an Austin-based pediatrician and author of the Baby 411 book series, offers expert advice to help you decide when your child is ready for a pet. Joanne Van Zuidam reports:

Is there an age at which kids all of a sudden seem to want a pet?

There is no specific developmental age that kids seem to want a pet, but interest in pets can emerge pretty early—thanks to all those picture books and bedtime stories filled with dogs, cats, owls, pigs, and fish! But life experiences, such as having a friend who has a pet, seeing puppies at the local animal rescue, going to the zoo, or simply watching Animal Planet, can easily inspire a child to want a pet of his own. Then again, it’s also not uncommon for children to love animals in books and on television but be scared of them in real life.

Is there a rule of thumb for the best time to adopt a pet? For example, should you wait until your child enters preschool—or later?

Kids and animals make great friends and playmates from a very early age, but the larger issue is that having a pet is quite a big commitment. You are essentially adding a new member to the family. Is everyone onboard? Can your family sufficiently care for the animal, in terms of time and money? If three walks a day and annual veterinary expenses for a dog are too taxing, consider a low-maintenance pet, such as a fish, hamster, or hermit crab.

Is there anything else to consider when deciding on a pet?

Yes, there are several things to consider. Older infants and toddlers may get too close to a dog’s food bowl, which can result in a territorial response from a dog. Or they may pull a cat's tail or throw something at the animal, which again can lead to unpleasant consequences, such as scratching and biting. If you have very young kids, be sure to supervise closely at all times. You should also consider the social needs of the animal. Pets require stimulation and play, and some—dogs, and cats, for example—need more grooming, activity, and attention than others. So someone at home has to have the time and the desire to devote to the pet.

Can, or should, a child be held responsible for walking, grooming, or feeding a pet? For instance, should you make it conditional that if a child can’t take care of an animal, it would be given away?

The child does not become the pet's owner. The family becomes the owner and the pet becomes a member of the family. So, no, the child shouldn’t be held responsible. Depending on the age of the child, you need to have realistic expectations of what role your child plays in the pet’s care. A toddler may overfeed a pet goldfish, and a seven-year-old is not going to wake up at 3:00 a.m. to take an untrained puppy out to do his business. But kids, even toddlers, can help with grooming, teaching limits, and playtime, or keeping a water bowl full. A pet is everyone’s responsibility. And once you decide as a family to bring a pet into your home, you can’t later decide that the pet needs to leave because your child isn’t holding up his end of a deal. I feel strongly that once you commit, you follow through.