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.
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.
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.
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.
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.