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The Great Pet Debate

Do your homework before you ask "How much is that doggie in the window?"

A pet can quickly become a beloved member of your family — if you choose wisely.
A pet can quickly become a beloved member of your family — if you choose wisely.

Thinking about adding a pet to your family? The right animal can make a great companion for your child. But falling for a cute little kitten without doing any research in advance is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Before choosing a family pet, consider this expert advice:

Evaluate your family's lifestyle. How much time do you have to devote to a pet? Are you out of the house a lot? Do you travel often? Does anyone have allergies that make certain pets off-limits? These are all questions to consider when narrowing down your pet options, says Tracy R. Dewhirst, DVM, a veterinarian in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Decide if your child is ready for a pet. "Although there's no magic age, many experts say a child should be at least 6 years old before you bring a pet into the family," says Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for companion animals at the Humane Society of the United States. "But that's just a guideline — parents are the best judge of their child's maturity." To gauge your child's readiness, be sure he shows self-control and obeys the word "no." Also, observe his behavior around other people's pets to see if he is gentle and respectful with them.

Do your homework. "Read as much as you can about the types of animals you're interested in before buying anything," says Dewhirst. Even within dog breeds there's a huge range in how much exercise and attention dogs need. You'll want to choose an animal and breed that suits your family's lifestyle. Borrow some guidebooks on the pets you're considering from the library and read them with your child.

Involve your child in choosing a pet. "Expose her to animals before buying or adopting one," advises Shain. "If you're considering a dog, let her spend time with a neighbor's friendly pup." Also, don't try to sub an animal she doesn't want for one she does. "If your child asks for a dog, don't bring home a rabbit," says Dewhirst. Though the swap may make sense for practical reasons, it may not go over well with your child — and you could end up with an animal she has no interest in.

Consider the cost. Food, medical care, grooming — the expenses of owning a pet add up. How much can you expect to spend? Caring for a cat costs about $400 a year, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). A small or medium dog costs about $500 a year, and big dogs even more.

Age-Appropriate Pets
Your child's age is a key consideration when choosing a pet. If you have a preschooler, you'll need to assume all responsibility for pet care, and be vigilant about supervising pet-and-kid play and hygiene. While there are no hard and fast rules for older kids, experts do offer some suggestions.

  • 5 to 10 years old: For this age group, the ASPCA recommends "shelf pets" such as fish or mice. "Hamsters, gerbils, rats, and other small rodents are better suited to the older end of this age range — say, eight to ten years," says Shain. "They like a lot of interaction, but they require particularly gentle handling, which very young children may not understand." Adds Dewhirst, "Small animals like rabbits and ferrets aren't potty-trained, so children can be exposed to fecal matter in the pet's cage." If you choose one of these pets, be extra careful about keeping the cage clean and making sure kids wash hands frequently.

  • 10 to 13 years old: Rabbits are good pets for kids in this age group, who can learn how to handle a bunny properly to avoid injuring him. Dogs and cats can also be great. When selecting one, research breeds carefully and look at adult animals, suggests Shain. The reason: Puppies and kittens are babies themselves and are still learning about the world around them. As such, kittens are more likely than older cats to scratch and puppies to chew everything in sight. Consider adopting an older dog or cat with a solid history of calm, gentle behavior.

  • 14 years old and up: For teens who are involved in a lot of activities and have less time to devote to a pet, birds and fish can be great low-maintenance options.

Caring for the Family Pet
Your child may swear that he'll take care of his pet, but when the novelty wears off, the bulk will likely fall to you. "No matter what type of animal you get, you as the parent will be doing a lot of the caretaking," says Dewhirst. That said, there are age-appropriate ways your child can contribute.
  • Young children (ages 5 and up) can feed the pet, make sure he has clean water, and brush him if necessary. With your supervision, your child can also help walk a dog and clean cages or tanks for hamsters, guinea pigs, fish, and other small pets.

  • Older children (ages 10 and up) can take on more responsibilities, including walking a dog solo, emptying a cat's litter box, and cleaning a small pet's cage. Also consider letting a child this age participate in any dog training classes you may attend.

Finally, remember that getting a pet is a long-term commitment. Pets can be with your family for 10 to 15 years or more. In other words, the cat you get for your 10 year old will likely become your responsibility when your child leaves for college — so be sure you're ready for that before you bring a new pet home.

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