Is my Child Ready to Own a Pet?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Many parents struggle with the decision whether or not to introduce a pet into the family, especially when there are still infants or toddlers in the picture. While a pet may represent companionship to a child, it also represents additional responsibility for another living thing. Owning a pet, whether it is a goldfish or a golden retriever, is not something to be taken lightly, so parents should carefully consider a child's temperament, level of maturity and sense of responsibility before allowing him or her to assume ownership of a pet.

A turtle can make a good pet for an older child.
A turtle can make a good pet for an older child.

One factor to consider is the child's relationship with his or her inanimate possessions, such as toys and dolls. A very young child may have some difficulty distinguishing between a nearly indestructible teddy bear and a real guinea pig or hamster. If a younger child demonstrates the ability to interact with stuffed animals in a respectful way, then he or she may be ready to interact with a pet such as a puppy or cat. Parents may want to wait a few years before considering a pet that requires a gentler hand, such as a gerbil, hamster or turtle. If a child plays rough with a doll or throws toys across the room, he or she may not be ready to own a pet without supervision.

A kitten can make a good pet for a child who can interact respectfully with stuffed animals.
A kitten can make a good pet for a child who can interact respectfully with stuffed animals.

Some children show a definite interest in owning a pet after visiting with friends, going to a pet store or viewing a demonstration at school. Parents should make sure the child's interest is genuine and ongoing, not based on a movie fad or peer pressure. An older child may have the maturity to care for a pet, but not the understanding of that pet's specific needs and habits. Interest in owning a Dalmatian puppy, for example, rose significantly after the release of a popular Disney movie, but many new owners did not realize how much room a grown Dalmatian required. When a child is prepared to accept a pet based on the family's own parameters, then he or she is probably ready to own one.

Puppies can make a good choice for children who can play appropriately with stuffed animals.
Puppies can make a good choice for children who can play appropriately with stuffed animals.

One difficult aspect of pet ownership should be considered before parents allow a child to bond emotionally with a pet. All animals have life spans, and in the case of many small animals and aquatic life, that lifespan can be very short. A younger child may not be ready to handle the sad reality whenever a pet does pass away, but an older child may be better equipped. Losing a pet is never easy, but it can be especially difficult for a child who has never experience a loss of such magnitude. A pet may also become sick or suffer from age-related conditions, which means the owner must be prepared to make difficult decisions. Encouraging a child to provide proper nutrition, exercise and hygiene for a pet can extend the pet's life expectancy and the amount of quality time between a young owner and his or her pet.

Very young children may not be safe for hamsters.
Very young children may not be safe for hamsters.

It may not be realistic for parents to expect 100% compliance with all the rules and regulations of pet ownership, but a mature child with a genuine interest in a pet should make a reasonable effort. A younger child may still require the cage cleaning or bottle changing assistance of an adult, but owning a pet may prove to be the emotional and social boost he or she needs to feel responsible for another living thing's well-being.

Gerbils require a gentle hand, so probably aren't best for very small children.
Gerbils require a gentle hand, so probably aren't best for very small children.
Owning a pet takes responsibility.
Owning a pet takes responsibility.
Make sure your child knows a small pet like a guinea pig is not a toy.
Make sure your child knows a small pet like a guinea pig is not a toy.
How a child interacts with his toys, such as a teddy bear, can help indicate whether he's ready for a pet.
How a child interacts with his toys, such as a teddy bear, can help indicate whether he's ready for a pet.
Ferrets are usually very active and can keep children entertained.
Ferrets are usually very active and can keep children entertained.
Macaws and exotic birds may not make for the best pets for children.
Macaws and exotic birds may not make for the best pets for children.
Chinchillas are relatively low maintenance pets.
Chinchillas are relatively low maintenance pets.
A toddler may not be able to have a pet.
A toddler may not be able to have a pet.
Having a golden retriever as a pet may take too much of a commitment that a child isn't ready for.
Having a golden retriever as a pet may take too much of a commitment that a child isn't ready for.
Some recommend getting cats or dogs while a baby is an infant so the child can grow up with the pet.
Some recommend getting cats or dogs while a baby is an infant so the child can grow up with the pet.
Children can become very attached to pets, so it's important to make sure they are ready prior to an introduction.
Children can become very attached to pets, so it's important to make sure they are ready prior to an introduction.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments

anon284543

My daughter owns a tortoise all by herself and is doing great, but she recently lost one of the turtles and was heartbroken, so we promised her another pet. She wants a rabbit, and we told her we would have an answer in July after she gave us a speech. I told her to wait until next month again and she seems really devastated. Is she ready?

anon67157

Well, I don't think so. I've heard they do not like to be held or cuddled, and are very active.

But they do bond closely with their owners if they are handled gently, so be sure that your children are gentle with animals.

olittlewood

are chinchillas good pets for small children? i have a friend who has a couple, and they are just the cutest, most lovable things! they seem to do really well with the kids.

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