pet pros and cons

Boy and girl on rug with pet puppy and kitten.

There are lots of benefits for kids in having a pet.

There are also lots of responsibilities and expenses that go along with becoming a pet owner.

The key in agreeing to get your child a pet is knowing that you will be the one who is ultimately responsible - just like you are ultimately responsible for all the other lives in your household.

Consider these pet pros and cons before agreeing to bring an animal home.

Pet Pros and Cons: Advantages of Pet Ownership

Let's start with the many pet pros. Here are just a few of the ways pets can enrich your child's life:

  • Pets can be a real comfort to children under stress. We've all had those times when we feel no one loves or understands us. Somehow, it really helps to bury your face in a loving dog or cat's tummy and cry it out.
  • Pets offer children unconditional love. Step on Poochie's tail, yell at him, even take him to the groomer - and you're still his favorite person in the world. Go figure.
  • If you allow Fluffy or Spot on the bed, he or she can be a real comfort for kids who are afraid of the dark or who don't want to sleep alone. This, in turn, can be a real comfort for parents who do want to sleep alone.
  • Pets, especially dogs, are reassuring for kids who are alone in the house occasionally. Latch key kids have a living being to welcome them home. Teens feel comfortable alone while the parents have a night out.
  • Pets are an excellent way to teach children about loving, caring, and sharing. Show your kids how to care for a pet by the way that you care for it. If you kick the dog, they will, too. If you love it, pet it, and brush it happily, theywill, too.
  • By caring for an animal that cannot talk, children learn lifelong skills such as reading nonverbal cues that they can use with people later on in life. And kids who own pets often score higher on tests for social skills, empathy, and self-esteem.
  • Pets are a natural source of entertainment. Most furry pets are fun to play with. Dogs fetch. Cats chase string. You can even train them. Some children also show their animals.
  • Kids who grow up with pets are less likely to develop allergies than kids who grow up solo. Scientists speculate that it may be because the children acquire immunities to the animals early on.
  • Pets provide biology lessons. Not only can alert kids learn the facts of life, but they can also learn about the life cycle - from birth to death.

Finally, pets are an excellent way to teach a child responsibility. Though this is often touted as one of the main reasons to let children have pets, I think it's overrated.

While most young children are not mature enough for such responsibility, they are old enough for the main value pets offer - namely, something to love that will love them back. 

Once that love is established, responsibility will gradually follow as the child matures. (Here are some easy pets for younger kids.)

Pet Pros and Cons: The Disadvantages of Pet Ownership

Dog on light-colored carpet sniffing wet spot.

Pet pros and cons: Now, let's address the knee-jerk parental response to the perennial question, "Can I have a ______?"

Which is often, understandably, a resounding "No!"

Your instincts are initially correct. Pets are a lot of trouble. They can be dirty, messy, noisy, and expensive. 

Here are just a few of the concerns that you should consider before agreeing to any pet - big or small, furry, finned or feathered:

  • Animals are messy. Even caged animals seem to be able to hurl shavings to the far corners of the room. And we won't even discuss the repercussions of a cat with a hairball. 
  • Pet pros and cons: animals are a lot of work. Pets need to be fed, bathed, and groomed. Dogs need walking. Cats need litter boxes scooped. Aquariums and cages must be cleaned.
  • Often, this will be your work. You cannot punish a negligent child by punishing the animal. If the kids goes off to school without feeding the rat, you can't let it go without food or water all day. (Consider these pet care consequences for kids instead.) Just realize that there are times - no matter how old or responsible the child - that the pet will be your responsibility by default.
  • Pet pros and cons: pets make vacations difficult. Consider how often you are away from home and how easily you will be able to get someone to look after your pet. If you have many animals or exotic animals, you will probably need to board them when you're away or hire a house sitter - both of which can add up quickly in terms of cost. The best bet is to get a pet that's easily cared for and switch off vacation pet duty with a neighboring family.
  • Animals eventually get sick and die. Can you say Pet Insurance? Seriously, you might want to check into it. An animal is a member of your family, and you cannot let it suffer. What kind of parenting skills would that teach your child? Even a box turtle can rack up the vet bills. Be sure that you are willing to pay what it takes to keep your pet healthy.
  • Pets are expensive. "But Mom, the rat is only $2!" Yes, darling, you're right. But then there's the $35 cage; the $9.95 bag of shavings; the $4.95 house; the $11.95 bag of food and the $6.95 rat care book. And he will need toys, of course, and treats. And he will need these things for the two or three years that the rat lives. And that's just a rat!

Wait! Aren't we missing something? I saved the worst for last: Kids lose interest. Of course, they do - kids lose interest in everything. 

Their attention spans are about a nanosecond long. Why would you assume it would be different for pets? 

The real key in agreeing to get your child a pet is knowing that this is probably your pet. You will be the one who is ultimately responsible - just like you are ultimately responsible for all the other lives in your household. 

If you don't want that responsibility or if you don't like cats, dogs, snakes, whatever - don't get one. Period. 

Wrapping Up on Pet Pros and Cons

Still trying to decide whether a pet is right for your family? Consider these pet pros and cons before you make this important decision.

Whether you get a pet depends on how much time you are willing to spend with it, especially with younger kids.

Pets impact the whole family, not just the "owner" (or if you live in enlightened areas, the "guardian").

Consider these pet pros and cons:

Girl studying on table with pet turtle.

How old is your child? Most experts agree that kids under age 6 are generally not capable of understanding an animal's needs and caring for it properly.

If you get a pet for a young child, realize that it is truly your pet. Don't go into the situation with false expectations.

That's not fair to the kid or the animal. Many advise starting out young children with easy pets such as mice, turtles, or fish.

That said, pets can be beneficial for young children, even if they cannot assume full responsibility for them.

How mature is your child? Some kids are more responsible than others, but all children will occasionally have time conflicts. All will forget occasionally. How will the pet affect the rest of the family? Do any family members have pet allergies? Fears?

How many kids do you have? If you get one kid a dog, does the next kid also get to demand a dog? Kids may share bedrooms, but they draw the line when it comes to pets.

Just be aware of this phenomenon going in and have an idea of how you will respond to it. You might say that either they share that dog or no one gets a pet. (That will last until the dog arrives!)

You might say that everyone gets to choose one pet right now. (But do you really want three new pets at once?) You might say that age 7 is the magic number, and as kids reach 7, they can choose a pet - with your approval. Just be prepared for this issue.

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