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PetPourri: The Young and the Pet-less – Responsible Pet Ownership for Kids

By Ashlee Verba

For many children, family pets are lifelong friends that provide loving companionship while teaching lasting lessons of responsibility and selflessness. Yet, as much as your child may promise to take care of a new household family member, it’s up to you to choose a pet that the kids can reasonably be responsible for on their own. Harm to your little ones (not to mention you doing all the work), can be the result of overzealous children with unrealistic expectations of what it really takes to care for another life. Still, if you’re satisfied your family is ready to take the animal kingdom plunge, a few tips on choosing the right pet and getting your kids to share in the care can go a long way for happy and successful cohabitation.   


Not All Pets are Created Equal

Most experts say a child is ready for a pet around age 6, but it is up to you to determine your child’s maturity level, keeping in mind that all pets need food, water and cleaning up after…even after the excitement of having a new pet has worn off. Starting with a dog or cat–both animals that require a level of attention and care that most young children are not capable of providing–may not be the way to go.  Instead, consider choosing an animal that eases your child into pet ownership, helping them to recognize that an animal, no matter how big or small, is a life that depends on them. 

The Don’ts

Even though they have cute little cages or habitats, with all the accessories to match, not all animals at the local pet store require the same level of care.  With extra attention these animals can make great pets, but they may not be the best choice for first time, junior pet owners.

  • Hamsters & Gerbils: Sure they’re cute and fuzzy, but they’re also nocturnal, noisily running on their exercise wheel by night, while cranky and prone to nipping when kids think it’s playtime during daylight hours.  They’re also master escape artists, just waiting for that cage door to be left open after feeding time. 
  • Iguanas and Box Turtles: Besides providing a spacious habitat that allows for free movement (there isn’t an aquarium made that’s large enough to maintain appropriate living conditions for these reptiles), iguanas and turtles require full spectrum lighting bulbs, calcium supplements, heat lamps and special handling requirements due to salmonella concerns.  Iguanas are not particularly friendly and can pack a nasty bite, while box turtles can live to be more than 100 years old. 
  • Rabbits: Popular as a living Easter Bunny, they require a large living space that can protect them from dogs and cats  that consider them natural prey.  Rabbits are easily frightened, subjecting kids to nasty bites and scratches, and when left to roam in the home, will chew through just about anything, including electrical wires.

Other animals, including large birds, exotics like ferrets or minks and specialized fish, are also inappropriate for teaching children how to care for a first time pet.

The Dos

While the following animals still require an attentive level of care, they may be better suited for first time owners.

  • Goldfish, Female Beta Fish and Hermit Crabs: Fairly hearty, these first time pets require a clean, small aquarium and daily feeding.  Children can help with feeding and cleaning, but parents will have to monitor how much is fed since fish can perish from too much food.
  • Rats: Contrary to popular belief, rats are exceptionally clean animals, highly intelligent and much easier to hold than gerbils or hamsters. They require very little upkeep, and can even be taught to do tricks.
  • Corn Snake or Leopard Gecko: Much easier to care for than iguanas or box turtles, these are a much better choice if your somewhat older child insists  on a reptile. Both can comfortably live in a medium sized aquarium with a heat source, but require live food including a weekly mouse or crickets.
  • Guinea Pigs: A wonderful first time pet, these cute little animals rarely bite, like to be gently handled, and even purr when petted.  They don’t require specialized food and are larger than gerbils and hamsters, which prevents them from escaping their living quarters.

Regardless of which first time pet you choose, make sure to get information on the web or local pet store for proper care.


Reinforcing Responsibility

Once you’ve purchased that perfect new pet, it’s time to prepare your children for the real work involved in its care.  Using information from books or internet research on keeping your particular animal healthy, write down a schedule of tasks required.  Break down the tasks for daily, weekly and monthly action, assigning duties as is appropriate for their age.  It may help to create a visual schedule of these responsibilities that can be posted adjacent to a daily chore list or next to the animal’s cage.  Attaching a pencil or marker to the chart can also be helpful for checking off duties that might get forgotten.  Keep in mind that younger kids may need help with cage or tank cleaning, but can probably feed and provide water with little assistance as long as they’re being held accountable for doing so. 

Minding your Pet Manners

How your child interacts with animals is probably the biggest part of building a positive, lifelong child/pet relationship. Monitoring all interactions is important in the beginning, allowing you to teach your child good pet manners as they go, in addition to preventing any unfavorable outcomes.

  • Establish firm rules prior to bringing the pet home. Make sure your children know that teasing, poking, prodding, pulling and yelling are no way to treat a family member and will not be tolerated. Explain that animals are just like people in that they want only love and safety in their homes.
  • It’s important for your child to understand that, while their family pet loves its family, it needs alone time too. Especially when eating, playing with a toy or sleeping. (Use the reciprocity rule: “Would you like to be pulled away from your breakfast or woken up when you’re sleeping?”)
  • Teach them to heed obvious warnings: hissing, lip curling or showing teeth, and frantic squirming to get away. These are all signs that their pet wants to be left alone.
  • Make sure they know injured animals tend to be more edgy; if they see that their (or any) pet is hurt, instruct them to notify an adult before trying to comfort the animal.
  • Strongly reinforce that your child always ask permission before approaching an unfamiliar pet.

Choosing the right pet and allowing your kids to be part of the care giving process is rewarding all around: you’re teaching your child the responsibility of caring for something, your child is learning what it is to be a responsible, loving pet owner and your pet is feeling loved and taken care of.   By involving your children in as many aspects of care as they can handle, they can grow to be considerably more knowledgeable pet owners in the future, or possibly more importantly, learn that pets just aren’t for them in the first place.

1 Comment

  • does anyone know if i can have my baby boxed turtles live in same space as hermit crabs

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