“Can we get a pet?” You know the question is coming, even if you haven’t gotten it already.
After persistent begging from their then five-year-old daughter, Claire, Erika Fredette and her husband, Lyle, finally got their chihuahua, Lucie. “Lyle and I went back and forth on the idea for about a year,” recalls the Calgary mom. “It seemed like a good stage to get a dog, because Claire was old enough to understand some of the expectations that went along with dog ownership.”
It takes time to figure out whether your family is ready for its first pet. Philip Fulton, the manager of community outreach at the Calgary Humane Society, believes the right age varies for every child. You’re more likely to have a positive experience if it’s treated as a family pet and not just the child’s pet.
1. Do your research
Before you even go to look at a pet, have a serious talk. “Make sure everyone is aware of the care and requirements before you bring the pet home,” Fulton emphasizes. That talk includes determining if you’re ready for a pet at all. Consider whether your lifestyle allows for the necessary feedings, exercise, play and other care a pet needs. Be honest with yourself—if you travel a lot, or your kids have a lot of extracurriculars, it may be hard to give a pet what it requires. Weigh the pros and cons of the demeanour, size and energy levels of different types of pets and breeds. (Don’t forget potential allergies!) Also be sure to research the best place to get the pet. It’s important that your kids take part in all of this groundwork. If they are not interested enough to help you research, they likely aren’t ready for a pet.
And remember: All pets require veterinary care, so look into potential vet costs. “Realize that you’ll have the animal for a long time,” says Fulton.
2. Choose your pet
Guinea pigs make a good first pet because they’re social and can handle lively playtime better than gerbils and hamsters. They also have short lifespans, which is great if you’re not looking for a long-term commitment. “They are very tolerant, especially when a child is learning how to stroke an animal,” says Fulton. Dogs and cats are popular choices but require more attention than other animals. Whatever you choose, you’re the primary caregiver, so don’t get that lizard or snake you won’t touch!
3. Make it fun
Pet care can be a way for children to learn new responsibilities. If you make a game out of it, kids will want to participate. Singing while brushing a puppy is one example. Just make sure what they’re doing is age appropriate. “A younger child may not be able to walk the dog or clean the fish tank, but if you have kids help or even just watch other family members care for the animal, you’ll instill the values of responsibility and empathy from an early age,” says Fulton. “They’ll eventually be able to do things like clean out the guinea pig cage, even if they start by just holding the bucket.”
4. Take responsibility
Once the novelty wears off, your kids might not do as much as they promised. “They might lose interest in a week, but someone still has to care for the pet,” Fulton says. “Set a good example of caring for the animal. Help them understand that it’s not just a chore; they are caring for a living being that is wholly relying on them.”
Claire was so desperate to have a pet that she agreed to anything to get it. “Lyle and I realized that the bulk of the responsibility would ultimately fall on our shoulders. We wanted her to take part in feeding the dog and changing its pee pad. Claire doesn’t take the initiative but will do these things when we ask,” Fredette says.
Pet ownership helps develop a lifelong respect for living creatures. “It builds empathy and compassion, which your kids will carry with them for the rest of their lives,” says Fulton.
Fredette admits it was challenging at first to juggle a pup and a five-year-old, but she has no regrets. “It’s brought us closer as a family. We can’t imagine life without her.”
“Rabbits don’t make the best first-time pet,” advises Philip Fulton of the Calgary Humane Society. Skittish and averse to handling, rabbits go beyond what many families can manage. Plus, bunnies need space to hop, both within and outside of their pen. “They can be destructive, and they’re poop machines. They require higher maintenance than people realize.”