Children and pets

Children and pets

From the first time they come in to contact with small animals, children are enthusiastic about them. When they reach school age they usually start asking their parents if they can have a pet at home. Little dogs are usually the first choice.

However, the enthusiasm often only lasts for the first meeting, or for the first few days. When they realise that this cute pet brings responsibilities, chores and even dangers along with it, then the excitement begins to wane.

If children are to be responsible for their pets, they need to spend a considerable amount of time every day looking after them, e.g. seeing to food, water, walks and cleanliness. However, they will definitely reap significant “rewards” in exchange for their time.

There are many reasons, both physical and psychological, why it is beneficial for children to have a pet. Just by being there, animals teach loyalty, friendship, compassion, and unconditional love. Living with an animal helps children to become responsible people and to mature considerably as they can take on some of the responsibilities connected to their pet’s needs.  It is no coincidence that children who have pets have a highly developed sense of responsibility and take more physical exercise.

It has also been found that children, especially shy children, who grow up with pets become more confident. Children develop strong bonds with their pets. This teaches them the value of friendship and lets them feel that they have a loyal friend!

Taking the dog for a walk is a good opportunity for older children to get some exercise, and it gives younger children a chance to play. Although owning a pet has many benefits for children, parents need to show them how to behave properly towards animals so that their relationship with their pets is safe and enjoyable for all concerned (both humans and animals).

Some families already have pets (usually a dog or a cat) before their children are born. Quite a few people panic if they hear that there is a risk of infection, and give their pets to friends and acquaintances to get them out of the house.

There is no need to panic. If your child does not have any health problems then there is no reason to react like this. If you get the correct information from your vet and take appropriate precautionary measures (such as making sure everything is kept clean) children and pets can live together happily, usually with beneficial results for the children.

The correct age for a child to get a pet is therefore totally subjective. However, as children need to be at least somewhat responsible to successfully undertake some of the chores involved in having a pet, we would suggest waiting until your child is 3 or older.

If you have a choice, it may also be better if the child has a small animal to begin with, rather than taking on "bigger" responsibilities, such as those that come with a dog.

There are some tips below on how to ensure that children and pets live together happily.

  • Even if you do not have enough room for a big pet, getting a cat or a hamster is a perfectly good idea. Before you get a pet, you need to find out if your children are allergic to hair or feathers etc. Many families want to adopt a pet, and know that they can handle the responsibilities, but are frightened of potential health problems which could arise from infections or other illnesses. Proper information about the pet you are considering will help to reduce these sometimes unwarranted fears, and will also help you to avoid any actual risks, especially for younger children. As younger children are more sensitive, and because they put their hands in their mouths, there is a high chance of them being infected by bacteria (not only from illnesses that are transmitted by animals). Some animals, such as reptiles, tortoises and turtles, frogs, chickens and ducklings, can transmit dangerous bacteria such as salmonella. Salmonella infections are particularly serious, especially in children under 5 years of age.
  • Animals bond closely with their family. However, when they are playing they can scratch, or even bite, children in their excitement. It is clear that well-socialised pets do not bite with the intention of hurting anyone, but rather because this is their way of expressing enthusiasm. But in any event, you should be careful, especially with young children who should learn some simple rules, such as the following, from an early age:
  • Get down onto your knees or bend down when you approach a dog or a cat so that you do not seem like a giant.
  • Never leave children unattended with dogs, no matter how well-behaved your pets are.
  • When you leave your pets in the house on their own, shut them in one area where they cannot reach the children’s toys. Take care with both your children’s toys and the pets’ toys. Children can swallow small toys.
  • Do not shout at pets or hit them. Animals are living creatures, and they have feelings too. Do not let your child tease your dog and show both the child and the dog how they should behave in each other’s spaces and with each other’s toys. Move your dog’s bones and dog treats to a safe place. You will definitely need to hide your dog's toys somewhere safe. Otherwise the dog might inadvertently hurt your child in its attempt to “ask” him for its toys.
  • It is very important to train your dog, irrespective of whether you train it yourself or whether it is trained by an experienced trainer. In any event, your dog must learn the basic commands and keep the basic rules obediently.
  • Cleanliness is a must where animals are concerned. The main points: Their water and their toilet areas should be cleaned at least once a day.
  • If you have a newborn baby, don’t forget to pay lots of attention to your pet. In this way, you can avoid "jealous scenes" which could be very dangerous for your child.

Acquiring a pet is a decision that requires mature thinking and commitment. Parents play an important role in making sure it all goes smoothly. We must not forget that the decision to add a new member to the family should not be taken lightly. A pet has needs that we cannot only meet when it suits us. If everyone in the family is out of the house for many hours a day, maybe it is not a good idea to get a pet. It is not enough just to leave water and food. A pet is not a toy, it is a member of the family and needs care, love and companionship.