As a person that has felt empathy and wonderment toward animals since I was old enough to have memories, I respect, promote and enjoy the bond between children and pets. It’s truly an endearing relationship that can exist between two of the most innocent creatures on earth.

However, for all of the primal power in the bond between kids and animals, the two species together can also be a negative force if not properly monitored and respected. Children are not born knowing how to handle and take care of animals much as animals are not necessarily born understanding the human touch and expectations.

Education is a key element in making the human-animal bond a mutually satisfying experience. Parents of children have an important responsibility to guide, teach and nurture their child’s relationship with animals and their place in our lives.
Ultimately, it is up to parents or other significant role models in a child’s life to guide them in the discovery of what is a proper pet, how to handle, care and feed pets as well as the commitment made to an animal we take into our custody…that it’s for the life of the pet….for better or worse.

Life Lessons
Stepping up to the responsibility of pet ownership is first taught to children through our own actions. If you surrender a family pet to a shelter or other similar action, children get the impression that pets are disposable. Once a person takes custodial care of an animal, it’s essential to do everything to take care of that pet including things that may not be easy…choosing a home or apartment that may not be the most desired but one that allows the pet(s), spending money and time on training if there is a behavior issue, giving up your favorite rug (hang it on the wall instead!), etc. Or, as I have often heard, people give up a pet because no one in the home is spending time with the pet so “it’s not fair to the animal”. What isn’t fair is that the pet owner made the decision to get the pet and then not keep their commitment. So in the end, it’s not fair to the pet to be bounced out of the house and it’s a really bad message to the children. Both have been done an injustice.

Of all the lessons we can teach our children, keeping a pet through better or worse is highly important…it teaches personal responsibility, empathy for living creatures (they are not disposable), patience (a very helpful skill when dealing with humans as well), discipline in terms of routines for feeding, walking, etc. and keeping commitments.

A common mistake that many families make is what I call the “impromptu” pet. A last minute decision is made to get a pet without any forethought to the life span, care, cost, time, etc. the pet will need. The kids may suddenly start begging for a cat or gerbil one Saturday so off the family goes to the pet store or finds a kitten free to a good home in the newspaper and for the next several days, there is a “love affair” with the new critter.

Unfortunately, the love affair fades and often the parents, not the kids, are left with the care and expense of a pet they may not have wanted to begin with. The best way to avoid this scenario is to take several steps before getting the pet.

  1. Always give yourself a waiting period of at least several weeks or months before getting any pet. If a child’s desire for the pet continues over a long period of time, it’s more likely they truly want the pet, it’s not just a whim. I tried this with my son when he wanted a snake. I took him to see several people I know with snakes to let him touch and observe firsthand what it would be like to have one. Thankfully he never mentioned it again (little did he know I would never have gotten a snake for a pet anyway but I got away with him thinking it was his decision).
  2. Use a “try before you buy” strategy. Find ways to observe, handle and care for the species of pet you are interested in. Perhaps a friend has that particular species and you can “babysit” for a week. Often, kids find that playing with the pet is only a small part of being a pet parent. Cleaning cages, exercising, feeding, cleaning up accidents, training, etc. are also an important element of pet ownership and some children may not be up to the task on a long-term basis.
  3. Once the decision is made to get the pet, be sure to buy from a responsible breeder, store, etc. (be sure to read our SCAM article in the Sept ’08 issue!). Getting a pet from a shelter is a great choice. There are many sizes and shapes of dogs and cats or kittens and puppies at shelters as well are purebred varieties. These animals often are housetrained, which is a big bonus. And, they just need a second chance! Many species are available at shelters including rabbits, guinea pigs, iguanas, etc. because there were plenty of pet owners who didn’t follow the steps listed above.

Another important note is that, no matter where you obtain the pet, it is from an entity that is responsible in case you have trouble with the pet or have an unfortunate change of heart after having the animal for a short time. Believe me, if you get a dog or cat “off the side of the road” or someplace like Trader’s Village, you will never see that person again. They will not support you, answer phone calls about questions concerning the pet, take the pet back if it’s ill, etc. And, most likely, they have misrepresented the pet and you’re “fleeced”.

Pet Ownership
Ok, I think you get the picture about making sure you REALLY want the pet and all of the good, bad and ugly that goes with it. Now we are home with the pet and the kids are excited (which is the really cool part!). The next step is teaching children how to handle the pet. Hopefully, you were given some education when you got the pet regarding how to hold, feed and house the animal and you have secured the proper food and equipment.
As a parent, you will need to observe your child handling the pet until you are comfortable they are capable of becoming the caretaker (obviously, this is age appropriate – for very small children, the parent must be prepared to be the long-term caretaker). Don’t hesitate to ask advice from the folks where you got the pet if needed or in the case of dogs, often professional training is needed to make sure the pet meets the expectations of living with the family. Include the children in these training sessions so that the whole family uses the same commands and routines.
As a rule of thumb: children under 10 are not capable of complete care of a cat or dog; children under the age of 4 must be monitored with pets at all times; parents need to check on water, food, etc. of a pet even if the child is old enough to be the primary caretaker.

Love At First Bite – Not Quite!
Teaching healthy and safe behaviors as it relates to animals (not just pets) is a way to ensure your child has a good life experience with animals. I know too many people for instance that are afraid of dogs because they were bitten as a child. Most of those bites could have been avoided if the child had been taught the “do’s and don’ts” of animal interaction.
The most important advice I can offer in regards to safety is to never leave your child unattended with a dog (and this applies to certain other species as well). No matter how docile the dog has been in the past, the child may pull the dog’s tail or accidentally hurt the animal and the dog will instinctively retaliate. The dog may be in pain, irritated by another animal that comes into their territory, sleeping, eating, etc. All of these scenarios could make an otherwise sweet dog turn and harm a child.
It’s also essential to remember that because the size of a small child is closer to the size of the dog, the chances of a dog attacking a child are much greater than attacking an adult. Here is a quick list of no-no’s that will help keep your child and the animal safe:

  • Never run up to a dog
  • Do not try to pet a dog through a fence, even if it’s a familiar dog
  • Always ask the pet’s owner about petting or touching the animal first
  • Hold your hand out gently for the animal to sniff first
  • Keep your face away from a dog when approaching them
  • Do not touch an animals’s eyes
  • Never “grab” an animal (including the tail)
  • Don’t approach an aggressive dog or dog that is guarding a property
  • Know the aggression alert signs – raised hair (hackles), showing teeth, growling – and never approach such a dog
  • Never try to take an animal’s food, treat or toy

Health and Safety
Pets can also pass disease (zoonosis) to humans and therefore good sanitary practices are necessary for children to learn. Unfortunately, the more rare diseases such as rabies get more press than many other harmful diseases that are much more common.
According to Novartis, at least 1/3 of all dogs are infected with intestinal parasites which can cause a human to contract hookworms or roundworms (4%-20% of children contract roundworms annually). Children are more susceptible to these diseases because they are more likely to put their hands in their mouths and may not wash their hands properly.
To prevent zoonosis, follow these rules:

  • Wash hands thoroughly when dealing with animals
  • Have your pet regularly checked for parasites and use the proper medications to prevent infestationsNever touch animal feces and in the case of weakened immune systems, do not let animals lick faces or wounds.
  • Don’t allow your pet to drink from the toilet
  • Cover children’s sandboxes when not in use. Animals will use the sandbox as a toilet!
  • Remove pet waste from your yard daily or use a pet waste removal service. Keeping your yard free of feces reduces ground contamination and flies.

Vector-borne diseases
Vector-borne diseases are those transmitted by fleas or ticks that infest dogs and cats. They can transmit serious diseases such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Tularemia or Ehrlichiosis.

  • To combat fleas and ticks:
  • Use preventive medication year-round for fleas and ticks
  • Do not take your pet to high-traffic pet areas where there may be other pets that are infected, sharing drinking water, smelling each other’s “behinds” and fecal matter, etc.
  • Treat your yard with organic, non-toxic solutions for pest control
  • Keep your pet out of wooded areas if possible

The Reward
With some good judgment, sound planning, patience and a sense of humor, life with pets can be very rewarding, especially to children. I truly can’t imagine what my childhood would have been like without my animals. Lonely for sure. I grew up in a rural area and my pets were literally my friends…I dressed them up, pushed them in baby carriages, read to them, took them on bike rides and adventures in the woods, cried with them and painfully learned the meaning of death and bereavement with them.

So many life lessons can be learned through relationships with animals. They are God’s creatures and often, because of their connection with the natural world, they help us get our feet grounded again about what is truly important in life. It’s not possessions; it’s relationships and thank every one of my 46 pets (yes, I’ve had 46 pets!) for taking the journey with me and ultimately teaching me some of the best life lessons I’ve learned.