How to Choose the Right Pet for Your Kids

mom and dad introducing baby to pet dog

"Please, Mom, can I have a puppy… all my friends have them." Have you heard such pleas? It's almost like a rite of passage in childhood - it seems that nearly every kid asks for a pet sooner or later. But figuring out if your family should get a pet, and, if so, what kind of pet you should choose for your child can be challenging.

The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that, of the 116.7 million households in the United States, about 80 million families own birds, cats, dogs or horses. The clear leader of the pack is the dog-owners-with more than 43 million households having at least one dog. Next are 36 million cat-owners, followed by 3.67 million bird-owners and 1.78 million households with horses. Trailing behind are households with fish, rabbits, turtles, and poultry. Which of these creatures would be best for your child and family?

What to Consider When Choosing a Pet

Growing up with a pet not only can help boost self-confidence and lower blood pressure, but it may also help teach kids about responsibility. Before selecting a hamster, pig, or pug, here are some important things to think about:

  • Having a pet takes effort. Show your child that caring for a pet involves commitment. Sadly, many people pick a puppy or bunny to give their child for a birthday or holiday gift, but it often ends up neglected or brought to a shelter. To avoid such a scenario, try drawing up a pet care/chore chart first (i.e., who will walk the dog or feed the bird, and when?). Then make a list of necessary supplies, like a pet bed, leash, cage, and food. Go over these lists with your child so he or she can see all that is involved.

  • Will the pet cause allergy issues? Find out if the pet your family is considering tends to have dander or other considerations that may cause allergies. For example, if your family wants to adopt an exotic bird like a cockatiel, you should know that these birds have a lot of dander that can trigger allergies. Instead, consider another type of bird that has less dander, such as a green-cheeked conure. Maybe your family is thinking of getting a golden retriever-but the dog's dander and copious shedding may be too much for a child with allergies. You might instead get a poodle or labradoodle - these are among the dog breeds that have hair rather than fur (so they don't have dander) and are, therefore, considered hypoallergenic.

boy with reptile

Pets and Germs

Most kids love to hug cute puppies or kittens, or they can't keep their hands off pet food. What can a parent do to ensure that pet-related germs don't cause problems? Here are some guidelines:

  • Avoid the spread of germs by handling pets properly. If your family's choice is a dog or cat, teach your kids to treat their furry friend well by not pulling its tail. They should also be taught to never hit a pet. If they mishandle a pet, it could result in a bite or scratch, and germs can get into the open wound, leading to infection. Also, if the pet is a lizard or snake, teach kids to wash hands with soap and water after handling the pet or things in its habitat, in order to avoid infections from bacteria like Salmonella and e.coli.

  • Keep pet treats out of reach! Children are curious and some may explore the taste of pet goodies. These treats can carry germs, so be sure to put them behind locked cupboard doors. If your kids manage to delve into pet food anyway, be sure they wash their hands well before and after.

  • No pet toys in kids' mouths, please. Set up some ground rules not to chew on pet toys (as they may carry salmonella and other bacteria). Try to wash pet toys regularly.

Family Felines: What to Watch For

  • Teach your children to stay out of the litter box because the cat feces and urine can spread harmful germs.

  • Veterinarians and pediatricians alike recommend that families (and especially children) do NOT sleep with their cats. The dander can aggravate allergies, and the cat might also scratch your child during the night.

  • Tell your kids to stop the cat from licking their faces or other parts of their skin (especially where there may be open wounds) because of the threat of infection. Be sure that your child washes his hands after petting the cat. (Remember that cats lick the areas that have been in their litter box, and this can pose hazards.)

girl with pet rabbit

Choosing the Best Type of Pet

If you're leaning toward the most popular pets (dogs or cats), you've probably heard people say that certain breeds are better with kids. However, the breed is only one factor that affects personality and interaction with people. If you want to know the cold, hard facts, any dog has the potential to bark or bite. It also depends on how it is raised by humans that can make the difference.

The Humane Society of the United States states that the best dogs for kids are those who receive proper socialization, humane training, exercise, and attention. The best pets for children are also those that are given adequate food, water, shelter, and veterinary care, are sterilized, and are safely confined.

Narrowing Down the Choices

  • Younger or older pet? Puppies or kittens are delicate and take a lot of extra TLC and training. They tend to scratch and bite, so may not work well in a home with very young children. Instead, consider rescuing a friendly, adult animal with a good track record for getting along well with people.

  • Are your kids old enough for a pet? Experts say kids should be at least six years old before adopting a pet. Your child needs to have enough self-control to handle an animal with care.

Many joys and great life lessons may be gained from having a pet, and you can serve as an important role model. How you set up feedings, exercise, train, and react when your family pet makes messes will show your child important behaviors. So, be sure to resolve issues with patience, persistence, and heart.