Having a pet can be emotionally rewarding for children and adults.
When adopting a dog or cat, the age of your children is one factor to consider. Generally, because many bite injuries happen to young children, it may be safest to wait until your child is older than 4. But each child develops differently; think about your children and their individual maturity levels. There are 6-year-olds who may be ready for a pet, just as there are 10-year-olds who may be too active and impatient.
Here are five considerations to make in deciding when to add a pet to your family.
Evaluate your life’s balance
When you have a baby or toddler, you are already juggling a lot. This may not be an ideal time to adopt, especially pets needing more care like a puppy or kittens — and if you’ve never had a pet.
Waiting is a smart move; hold off until your family has more time to devote to the pet, until you know whether your child has allergies and until your child is old enough to understand how to behave around animals.
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If your children do recognize the importance of being calm and quiet around a new pet as the animal gets comfortable in the home, then it might be a good time to adopt.
Don’t rush the decision
Discuss the responsibilities with your children, and take your time when looking at animals. Animal-shelter staff members and responsible breeders can offer advice based on your situation and children’s ages. Be honest with them about your home life.
Think about both the needs of the pet and the safety of your children. It’s important to make sure a pet’s traits and temperament don’t put your child at risk of injury. For example, a large dog may not be the best fit for a home with young children.
Encourage gentle play with pets
Even if your children are respectful of the pet, closely supervise their interactions. This is to monitor for possible aggression issues and to ensure your children are not pulling on the dog’s ears or grabbing the cat’s tail. An aggravated or fearful animal sometimes will lash out and scratch or bite.
Many bites happen during playful roughhousing, because children don’t always realize when a pet gets overstimulated or irritated. Your children should be old enough to understand not to put their face near the animal’s face and not to tease a pet by grabbing toys or treats from them.
Prepare your kids for pet care
Ensure your children understand a pet should never be yelled at or hit. Everyone in the house should use positive reinforcement to encourage ideal behavior. If you see signs of animal mistreatment by a child, talk to your pediatrician for guidance.
You likely will be doing most of the work taking care of the pet, of course, but kids ages 5 or older can be expected to help you with simple chores, such as leashing the dog, giving out treats after walks or refilling the water bowl.
Taking care of an animal is a great way to learn about responsibility and caring for others.
Laura Marusinec is an urgent care pediatrician and clinical performance improvement specialist at Children’s Wisconsin and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics.