What to Do When Your Child Wants a Pet

“Animals are such agreeable friends. They ask no questions. They pass no criticisms.”
—George Eliot, British novelist

Many families have a pet, but how well do kids and pets mix? Sometimes it depends on the age of your child and the type of pet that you have. Other times, it depends on how responsible your child is, or how willing all family members are to share responsibilities. Consider these ideas for including a pet in your family life.

Tips for . . .

all parents

Do some research. Adopting a pet is a big decision that requires much planning. What kind of care does the pet need? Where will it live in your home? Where will it sleep? How long does the pet typically live? Learn as much as you can before you open your home to a pet.

Be realistic. It’s easy to underestimate how much extra work a pet can be. Dogs need a daily walk. Long haired pets need to be brushed. Hamster cages need to be cleaned once a week. Fish tanks need to be maintained. Talk through the responsibility of caring for a pet with your child.

Start simple and slow. Some families start with a lower-maintenance pet, such as a goldfish, a crayfish, or hamster, to see how a child does before getting a higher-maintenance one, like a cat or dog. That way parents can see how family members do when the initial enthusiasm wears off.

Put safety first. Protect your child from pets. Dogs can bite (and cause serious harm)—cats, hamsters, and gerbils can scratch (and bite as well).

Talk about the risks. Animals like humans, live and die. Talk to your kids about the risks involved with owning a pet. If a vet recommends putting down a pet because of an illness, talk to your children about it before you make a final decision. It’s better to go through the process and work through the emotions together. Some family members will have an easier time letting go than others. With older kids, this may raise issues about why sick people aren’t put down like pets. Be prepared to talk about this, if it comes up.

Respect your child’s feelings. When a pet dies, treat the death seriously. Plan a funeral. You may not be attached to a goldfish, but your child is.

Be prepared to pitch in. Even if your child claims he can take full responsibility for a pet, the truth is that you’ll need to monitor daily how your child is doing. Developmentally, most kids do not have the skills and motivation to care for a pet on a daily basis. They’re usually more interested in talking and cuddling with a pet than feeding it, cleaning cages, emptying litter boxes, or picking up waste in the backyard.

parents with children ages birth to 5

Make sure your child is always supervised by an adult when around pets. Young children don’t know their own strength, and can unintentionally hurt your pet.

Model patience and kindness. Young children can easily become angry at a pet, especially if it nips at your child. Make sure your child never hits a pet.

Safety first! If you have a cat or dog, make sure you place a protective net over your infant’s crib so that your pet doesn’t crawl in with a baby. Keep your children safe. Click here for more ideas on keeping babies safe around pets.

parents with children ages 6 to 9

Create a routine for caring for your pet. When you make feeding, walking, and cleaning a part of your routine, your kids will be more likely to help.

Continue to teach your child about how to interact with pets. The more gentle and patient your child can be with a pet, the better the interactions will be.

Read books about the type of pet you have. The library usually has a lot of books to choose from. This will help your child learn more about your pet.

parents with children ages 10 to 15

At this age, kids can enjoy teasing a pet. Be clear that many pets become upset and may strike back because of teasing.

When kids have a bad day, encourage them to spend some time with a pet. Many will talk with a pet—or find some comfort in petting a trusted animal.

Prepare to Pitch In. As kids become more social, some begin to ignore a pet and slack off on daily care. Be ready to step in so that your pet gets the attention and care it needs.

parents with children ages 16 to 18

Older teenagers can be quite attached to a pet, especially if the pet has been with your family since your teenager was a young child. Celebrate that relationship.

Some pets will stick close to an older teenager. Others may find another family member if your older teenager has a lot of friends who come in and out of your home.

If a family pet dies when you teenager is close to leaving home, don’t be so quick to get another pet. Your teenager will most likely want one, but talk through how pets can live 15 to 20 years. That has implications for other family members once an older teenager leaves home.