Your Child’s First Pet

Most children are naturally drawn to animals and want one of their very own. They think of a cute cuddly puppy or kitty, but don’t realize the impact of their request. Parents must ask themselves many questions as they carefully consider this decision.

Dr BailesHow Soon is too Soon?
Is my child old enough for a pet? Dr. Jessica Bailes DVM, a veterinarian at Willamette Veterinarian Hospital in Corvallis advises us to pay attention to our child’s temperament in making this important decision. Is your child inherently gentle? How do they act around other people’s animals? Dr. Bailes tells us that most children are ready for a pet at about six years old, and many are ready by four or five, and some even younger. It’s more about the child’s level of understanding and their personality than their age.

Be Realistic
Having a pet is a family affair. Children often are not prepared to completely take on the responsibility. It’s a big job that requires considerable time, and effort. Dogs and puppies sometimes need to be walked 2 to 3 times a day along with many potty breaks, socializing and training. Kittens and cats need training, attention, litter box duties, and scratching prevention.

Even fish require tank cleaning, and controlled feeding as overfeeding is one of the major causes of death. All aspects of the family’s life including parent’s time, commitments, resources, and the available room in the home should be considered in deciding whether to get a pet and what type to get. Realistic expectations about each family member’s contribution should be clearly defined from the very beginning.

Choosing the Right Pet
Pets come in all different shapes and sizes, but more accurately, species and breeds. According to the AVMF (American Veterinary Medical Foundation), dogs are the most common pet followed closely by cats. Birds are a distant third followed by horses. These animals are all considered companion animals. Animals such as fish, birds, ferrets, pocket animals (such as gerbils, hamsters, other rodents), turtles, snakes, lizards, rabbits, etc are exotic animals. You can learn more about them on AVMF’s website at

In addition to the type of pet you select, you should consider the individual temperament of the animal, making sure it fits your families’ needs. Animals have unique personalities despite their breed. Parents should choose a pet that is mild and gentle while still a being a lot of fun.

Dr. Bailes tells us to watch young children closely when they are with pets, and to give them time to adjust to one another. “It’s really important to introduce any new pet gradually,” she advises. This will help both child and pet to become familiar with each other with the least amount of stress as possible. Children are naturally curious and active, and can sometimes forget to be gentle and calm around animals. Parents should be prepared to give many reminders. Pets can become agitated, anxious and stressed when they feel threatened, provoked or protective. Parents should be aware of any signs that the animal is reacting negatively or under stress, and separate them from their children right away. Even the mildest pet can scratch or bite if provoked. The child and pet’s wellbeing should be thoroughly considered before making the decision to get a pet, and afterward, supervision is key to assuring success.

Learn the Specific Needs of Your Pet
Dr. Bailes tells us that it is really important for puppies to get lots of socialization when they are young, 8-16 weeks old. They need to be exposed to as many people as possible. The basic rule for puppies is they need to interact with 100 people in first 100 days.” This is an important open window of exposure that will frame the dog’s thoughts on people and how they fit into their life. Dr. Bailes encourages us to, “take them everywhere possible from the store, to the bank, or just on car rides.” Give them the foundation to learn that people are friends and not a threat.

Your new pet’s health and wellbeing are important. As soon as you bring them home you should contact your veterinarian to schedule a checkup. Not all veterinarians take care of all types of pets. Exotic pets are often cared for by a specialist. Some general veterinarians are comfortable with caring for all kinds of animals, but make sure to call your local clinic to ask who is the best fit for your new pet. Then work with your veterinarian to determine which vaccinations are needed and to establish an optimal timetable. Dr. Bailes tells us that vaccinations and de-worming are important not only for your pet’s health, but your children’s as well. Animal worms can be spread to children through contact with their feces. A rabies vaccine is necessary before your dog can be licensed with the county. In our area, dogs are required to be licensed at six months of age. For more information about licensing contact your local county licensing office.

A Pet Can Be Good for Your Child
Having a pet can teach life lessons like responsibility, trust, compassion, bereavement, respect, self-esteem, loyalty, physical activity, patience, and social skills.

Health psychologist Dr. June McNicholas, of the University of Warwick, studied 338 children ages three to fourteen to examine the emotional benefits of pet ownership. She foundboys with cat that a total of 85 percent said they regard their pets as friends and 40 percent said they would look for their pet if they were bored. A further 40 percent sought out their pet if they were upset.

Dr. Bailes adds that research shows children who have emotional, developmental, sensory processing disorder, or other disabilities are greatly benefitted by their pet friends. She says, “The human-animal bond is huge in helping them manage their conditions.” Dr. Bailes also notes, “Some parents say that the only thing that calms their special needs child is their pet. Some children with communication disorders learn to talk more by talking to others about their pets. Some children who are withdrawn learn to interact when they wouldn’t have done so otherwise.”

Adding a pet to your family can be an exciting step. One that can benefit the whole family. Many families thrive as pet owners. Dr. Bailes leaves us with this thought: people in today’s world love and accept pets as a treasured family member.

By Wendy Sinclair

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