The thought of watching your toddler frolic with a puppy may give you the warm and fuzzies, but the reality can be very different.
Growing up with a beloved pet is a great experience — as long as you have realistic expectations. Many experts agree a child should be at least six years old before a kitten or puppy is brought into the family. Of course, only you can judge if your child is mature enough to treat a young animal with care.
Here are five myths about pets and kids and how to make the right choice for your household.
Myth 1: Puppies or Kittens are Best
If you have toddlers or preschoolers, you might think that a puppy or kitten would be safer than an older dog because they are smaller and will adapt easier to your household. This is not necessarily so.
Young animals are fragile and injure easily, especially if you have curious kids who like to experiment by pulling tails or who enjoy picking up the pet. Puppies and kittens play by using their claws and/or teeth. They also require a lot of extra care and training — which, if you have young children, can add an extra burden.
A friendly adult dog (two years of age or older) or cat with a history of being around young kids or an older animal that has a calm, sweet temperament might be more appropriate. Older dogs are usually already housebroken and some even have had dog training.
Ask a breeder or animal shelter employee if you have questions about one of their older dogs.
Myth 2: Certain Breeds are Better
When it comes to dogs, which breed is best? You might think a smaller breed dog would be the right choice because it’s less likely to knock over your child and would be easier for your child to walk and play with.
However, every dog has its own distinct personality and temperament. Breed is just one component in determining its behavior. Every dog has the potential to bite.
All dogs, no matter what the size, need training and socialization in order to become a mannerly part of your household. They need adequate exercise, food and water, veterinary care, shelter and, of course, love.
Discuss with your veterinarian, research on the Web and in books, and talk to cat or dog experts to find out what breed may be best for your family and lifestyle.
Myth 3: No Such Thing as Too Much Attention
There’s a reason why “let sleeping dogs lie” is a cliché. It is true. You must explain to your kids that dogs and cats are just like they are: they need their quiet time.
Teach your children to leave your pet alone if they are resting, eating or playing with their toys. Let them know the signs your pet may give if they want to be left alone — growling, hissing, retreating, lip curling. Snapping or biting, however, should not be tolerated. Contact your veterinarian as soon as possible if your pet exhibits these dangerous behaviors.
Adults should never leave young children unsupervised with pets. You should also teach your child that such things as pulling ears or poking eyes is not acceptable behavior. Some pets become over-excited by kids running around screaming. Teach your kids how to behave around pets. Animals, like humans, must be treated with kindness and respect.
It is your job to set rules and boundaries and to teach your child how to gently and properly touch your pet.
Myth 4: An Older Child Will Take Care of the Pet
It is not realistic to expect a child to have full responsibility over the care of a dog or cat. Pets need food, exercise, training, veterinary care and even waste removal.
As kids get older, they often get busier. They have school, after-school and weekend activities, jobs and time they’ll want to spend with friends. That leaves little time to give your pet the attention he needs.
That’s not to say kids can’t — or shouldn’t — help take care of the pet. It is an excellent way to teach responsibility for another living creature.
Choose age-appropriate tasks. Even a young child can help by scooping food into a bowl, choosing a new toy, or grooming the pet.
Myth 5: A Pet is a Playmate
It’s a lot of fun to play with your cat or dog. But what happens when your kids get a little bored? Or when that adorable kitten or playful pup grows up?
Your kids must know that your pet is a part of the family and not a toy. It is not something to be given away once the novelty has worn off or because it peed in the house or chewed a shoe.
Owning a pet can be a great way to teach children trust, responsibility and commitment. Work with your veterinarian, trainer or breeder to determine how best to deal with any behavior issues.
Fact: Pets and Children CAN Live Happily Together
Caring for a pet can be a wonderful experience for the entire family. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), children who are raised with and develop positive feelings for pets can help in developing trusting relationships with others. It can help kids develop empathy, compassion and non-verbal communication.
Children who help care for pets learn responsible behavior and respect for living things. They can whisper their secret thoughts in their pet’s fuzzy ears as they would to a favorite stuffed toy.
Pets can also help children learn about the cycle of life and develop a connection with nature.
And perhaps most important, pets teach our children loyalty and love.