Good Living

Choosing the Right Pet for Your Kids

By Tanni Haas, Ph.D. | Contributor

Few things are as exciting to kids as having their own pet, and it has its benefits too: research shows that having pets make kids more compassionate and teaches them important lessons about care and concern for others. But how do you choose the right pet for your kids? 

Experts advise parents to consider the following seven factors:

Your kids’ level of maturity 

Having a pet makes kids more mature, but your kids need to have achieved a certain level of maturity in the first place before they’re ready to take care of one. Nicole Larocco-Skeehan, an expert on animal behavior and training, says that kids aren’t ready for pet ownership before they have learned to follow directions, since one of the main elements of being a pet owner is teaching pets how to follow directions. Pediatrician Dr. Hannah King adds that one of the most telling signs that your kids are ready for a pet is that they complete household chores willingly and without any fuss. “If it’s a constant fight to get your child to do a chore,” Dr. King says, “it’s likely going to be similar when you’re trying to get them to walk the dog in the rain or when they’re in the middle of a video game.” Typically, kids will have achieved the necessary level of maturity to take care of a pet by the time they turn 6 years old.

Pets for younger versus older kids: Guinea pigs are a great choice for younger, less mature kids. They’re in the same family as hamsters, but are gentler and less likely to bite. Dogs are a great choice if your kids are older and more mature. They are generally high maintenance and require daily feeding, walking, and attention as well as regular baths and visits to the veterinarian. 

Your family’s daily schedule

Also consider your family’s daily schedule. “If your family has a jam-packed schedule,” Ms. Larocco-Skeehan says, “you may want to think about getting an adult animal that’s easier to take care of and requires less of a time commitment.” The truth is that even though your kids may promise to take responsibility for the pet, you and your spouse will inevitably be quite involved in its care. As Dr. King puts it, “Regardless of a child’s age, parents must understand that this is a family pet and ultimately the pet is their responsibility.”

Pets that require little vs. lots of care: Bearded dragons are great for families with busy schedules as they’re super mellow and only require little care. However, they do eat live bugs, so you’ll have to make trips to your local pet store for their food. Cats require less attention than dogs but still need to be fed and cared for on a daily basis. 

The pet’s lifespan

The lifespan of pets vary widely and therefore your family’s commitment to it. “Depending on the age of your child you may be responsible for the pet’s care if they become bored with the pet or leave the house,” says veterinary technician Saleema Lookman, Before you select a pet for kids, consider whether you’re ready to continue to take care of the pet once you’re kids are off to college, or whether you want a pet that’ll only be around for part of their childhood and adolescence.

Pets with short versus long lifespans: Hamsters are cute but only live on average 1.5 -3 years. Turtles, on the other hand, can easily live 20-30 years in captivity – some much longer.

The cost of pet care

When people buy pets, they often consider the upfront costs but forget to factor in the costs of upkeep. That’s a big mistake as the costs of pet care vary widely and can include, in addition to food, regular check-ups at the vet as well as emergency care. “Be prepared to spend money on the pet,” says Ms. Larocco-Skeehan, “and don’t select a pet you don’t think you can afford to maintain and take care of.”

Pets that are inexpensive versus expensive to take care of: Parakeets are not only inexpensive to buy, they’re inexpensive to take care of. In fact, you can feed them leftover fruits and vegetables from the refrigerator.  Rabbits, on the other hand, can easily set you back $500-$1,000 a year for litter, hay, and food pellets. 

The pet’s sleep cycle

The same is true of pets’ sleep cycle. Sometimes, people forget that not all pets are awake during the day and sleep at night. Ms. Lookman reminds parents that many small pets are nocturnal and may asleep during the day when your kids want to play with them and are up at night (making a lot of noise) when everyone in your household is trying to get some much-needed sleep.

Pets that are nocturnal versus diurnal: If you don’t mind having a nocturnal pet, gerbils are a great choice. They’re cute and highly sociable but be aware that they’re often active at night and can be noisy. Guinea pigs, on the other hand, are up during the day and sleep during the night.

The risk of disease 

Pets carry different risks of disease which is yet another factor to consider when selecting a pet for your kids. For example, Ms. Lookman says, amphibians and reptiles carry the Salmonella bacteria in their gut which can infect humans if you don’t maintain a high level of hygiene. Similarly, cats and dogs can spread diseases like worms. “Proper preventive measures significantly reduce these risks,” Ms. Lookman says, “but they’re something to be aware of when researching pets.”

Pets with low versus high risks of disease:  Frogs are a great choice for kids who are into reptiles but be aware that they do carry the Salmonella bacteria and can infect humans. If you’re afraid of catching disease from your pet, any kind of aquarium fish would be a good choice. 

The amount of space needed 

Finally, consider how much space you have or are willing to make available for your kids’ pet in your home. “Assess how much space the pet requires and whether your home can accommodate it,” says Ms. Lookman, 

Pets that require little versus lots of space: Birds like parakeets and finches require very little space and are happy in small cages. If, on the other hand, you have lots of space, perhaps even some outdoor space, chicken make for fun pets. They’re full of personality and can even be trained to come when you call them. 

About the Author:

Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences, and Disorders at The City University of New York – Brooklyn College.

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