Kids Caring for Pets: Fantasy or Reality?

by Nancy Kay, DVM

If only I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard, “We really want a pet, but are waiting until our child is old enough to care for it.” And countless times I’ve listened to a client explain that the youngster in the room with us will be the one taking care of the puppy I am examining. I bite my tongue so as not to respond, “Yeah, right. Good luck with that house training!” Instead, I find a more tactful way to explain what the family is in store for.

My sentiments about children caring for pets are derived from 32 years as a practicing veterinarian and 29 years of mommyhood (rarely if ever did my three youngsters spend an animal-less moment). I believe that children and animals are a fabulous combination, beginning well before the age when a child can significantly contribute to caring for a pet. There is plenty of data documenting pet-associated benefits on child development. Attachment to a pet promotes positive self-esteem and is related to healthy emotional functioning. Not only do pets favorably influence social development, but cognitive development as well. Postponing this relationship until children are mature enough to responsibly contribute to the animal’s care means missing out on several years of a really good thing.

How old is old enough?

Yes, most kids can contribute to an animal’s care from a very young age, but it is naïve to believe that they can successfully and consistently provide what pets need for their physical and emotional wellbeing. Younger children are simply not capable and older kids often lack the focus, time, and/or motivation to reliably provide care day in and day out. Heck, successfully housetraining and teaching manners to a new pup are challenging propositions for most grownups!

Children may believe they are responsible and capable enough to fully care for a pet, particularly when they are in what I refer to as the “fantasy phase,” thinking about how fabulous the experience will be. When the “reality phase” kicks in, an adult must be willing and able to provide the necessary backup. Regardless of the age of the youngster who is helping care for a pet, adult supervision is required, same as for most any other activity the child engages in (Internet use, homework, social activities, etc.). In this case, an animal’s wellbeing depends on it.

Whose pet is it anyway?

The intention may be that a newly adopted animal becomes the child’s best friend, and that this relationship will nurture a greater sense of responsibility in terms of the child caring for pet. The animal often has a differing opinion, bonding more strongly with someone else in the household and causing the child to lose interest. Exactly who his or her favorite human will be is anyone’s guess. I encourage families to avoid setting themselves up for disappointment. A newly adopted animal (referring primarily to dogs and cats here) should be considered a “family pet”. Ideally, the animal enjoys and is enjoyed (and cared for) by everyone in the household.

The bottom line

Care for a pet requires lots of adult involvement. For this reason, pets are simply not a good fit for every family. If you are feeling ready for a family pet and understand that much if not all of its care will rest on your shoulders, I encourage you to go for it. Kids and animals are a fabulous combination in well supervised situations. Watching them interact provides profound gratification, regardless of how much care the child is capable of providing.

Do you agree with these sentiments or has your experience taught you otherwise?

Dr. Nancy Kay, DVM Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine.
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award

Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Spot’s Blog: "
Become a Facebook Fan: Facebook Fan - Nancy-Kay