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A Family Pet

Many young children ask for a pet at some point growing up. Having a pet has proven benefits for both children and adults. They are good for physical and mental health, teach children about responsibility, friendship, love, and trust. However, not every family’s circumstances are right for having a pet. Although you may want to give into your child’s request, ultimately the responsibility of a pet lies on you as the parent, so you need to make the decision that is right for your family.

To get or not to get

Your family's health.  One of the most common reasons for not getting a pet is a family member’s asthma or allergies. If you are considering getting a pet and do not know if your child has an allergy, you should ask your pediatrician to test your child for allergies before making the commitment. Children can be allergic to fur or dander in addition to specific pets. If your child is allergic, you may still be able to get a pet; you will just have to choose carefully. Some kinds of pets are considered hypoallergenic and could be a good fit for your family. Contact pet stores in your area to ask about options for you.

Consider the costs. Before making the decision to bring one into your home, find out what the various costs will be to get the pet and to take care of it. Certain pets are more expensive to care for than others; for example, dogs and cats require food and medical care at the very least, and these can add up and be costly. If you think you can afford the ongoing expenses but not the initial price of the pet you want, consider adopting from a shelter or rescue organization (or from the friend of a friend who is giving away puppies!) rather than a pet store.

Understand the commitment.  Certain pets require more room and personal attention than others. If you do not have enough indoor (and even outdoor) space to accommodate a dog or cannot be home during the day to attend to his needs, you might want to consider a pet that needs less attention and space.

Which pet to get?  Deciding on what pet to get is a discussion that the entire family should be involved in. There are endless options for what kind of pet you can get from the smallest goldfish to the biggest Great Dane! If a dog or cat is too big or too much work, but your child is upset at the thought of getting, say a fish, there are many things in between, like a turtle, or a hamster, or a bunny. Only you know how much pet-care responsibility your child is ready for, so choose a pet based on your child’s own level of comfort.

Caring for a pet.  Before bringing your pet home, have a family discussion about expectations and responsibilities. Read some books on the pet you’ve chosen and what it will need for care. Decide on roles for everyone, even young children. Remember, you are ultimately the one responsible for the pet and may be the one who ends up taking care of it, so make sure YOU want one!

Pets and babies.  If you already have a pet, especially a dog or cat, and are expecting a baby, your pet needs to be prepared. There is no need to get rid of a pet just because you are having a baby. Remember, though, that your pet was your baby until now, and you need to be sensitive to his needs as he may be jealous at first. Start preparing him a few months before the baby comes. For example, if you do not want your dog or cat jumping up on the baby’s crib, start training him from the moment you set up the crib. Play some baby noises, such as crying, because hearing these for the first time can be startling for a pet. Invite someone with a baby into your home several times before your baby arrives or start leaving baby blankets around the house and teach your pet that they are off limits. When the baby arrives, use positive reinforcement with your pet instead of punishing him. Pay attention to your pet as well as your baby; for example, pet him while you are holding or feeding the baby. Don’t push him away but let him gently sniff the new bundle.

When a pet dies.  The death of a pet can be very traumatic for a child. Again, your child may show a range of emotions, from seeming unaffected to being very upset. Talking about death will help your child grieve. Avoid saying things like “God took the pet” or “the pet is asleep” because she might fear going to sleep or think that God will take someone else. If the pet is old or sick and needs to be put to sleep, assure your child that it will die peacefully and will no longer be in pain. Some children find rituals like burying the pet helpful, while others do not want to see it anymore. Do let your child’s teacher know because something may trigger her at school or daycare that upsets her about the loss.

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