Zootopia

Man’s best friend. A house is not a home without a cat. Honk if you love ferrets. Pet enthusiasts consider their furry and scaly friends to be part of the family. 

Of course, there are also humans who prefer household members be limited to those on two 10-toed feet. But, as parents, both the animal lovers and the animal shy, we all may eventually face the question: “Can we get a pet?”

Teaching responsibility 

The answer to the question of “can we” and “should we” is often, “If you take care of it.” But how much responsibility can a parent really expect a child to take? 

Nichole Tubman, a doctor of veterinary medicine at Prior Lake Pet Hospital, said: “I see many parents with the idea that the pet care will be 100 percent the child. 

This is unfair and unrealistic. The animal’s care cannot be compromised if your child is not going to follow through. The parent must be willing to take over the care, no matter the age of the child.” 

Though pet care should never be 100 percent their responsibility, kids shouldn’t be off the hook either. 

Generally speaking, parents can rationally expect:

Ages 0–4: Pet the animal and be nice to it. NOTHING more.

Ages 5–10: Minimal. Pick up outside, help clean the litter box or cage, brush the pet once per week, play with the pet daily and accompany the parent to the vet.

Ages 11 and older: Help with daily exercise (playing or walks), visit the vet and — along with the parent — discuss medical concerns. Feed one meal per day (after instruction from parents).

“Some parents will make the child donate some of their allowance after the age of 10 to the pet fund for vet care, toys and treats,” Tubman said. “This should be minimal, but I think it’s a good idea to teach the child that pets are a responsibility — not only with your time, but your finances as well.”

Choose wisely

After talking it over as a family, you’ve decided to take the plunge and bring home a pet. 

Next question: Which animal? Which breed? Who’s the lucky soon-to-be Fido or Muffin or Ralphie?

 

Cats: If cats are present before Baby arrives, they can do very well with little hands and often display mothering tendencies, though it never hurts to practice supervision, of course. 

When it comes to being exposed to young crawlers or toddlers, cats can have a hard time unless they have experience with small children. 

Cats can have high vet and care costs, but are easy to tend to and can be left alone for longer periods of time, especially when compared to dogs, which require boarding or sitting. 

Consider hair length: Long-haired breeds — and the same is true for dogs — can add dramatically to the hours you spend cleaning your home. 

You may need a Roomba, numerous lint-rollers or both to keep up (not that you’re keeping up anyway).  

Finally, decide where you stand on declawing. Felines can cause serious damage to your interiors if they’re not declawed. Declawing, however, can be painful for your cat, and gruesome and costly for you. 

Dogs: Puppies demand significant attention and training. You probably shouldn’t attempt to train a puppy with a new baby or young toddler in the house. 

Dogs are amazingly social, loving and fun, but the care and vet costs can be significant. They can’t be left alone for long without attention or the opportunity to go outside.

Within every species of animal comes variation in breed and upbringing. 

“Do research,” Tubman said. “Not all dog breeds do well with children … and it’s not the ‘big, scary’ breeds that you might think. Many small dogs can be nippy and worse with kids than the bigger breeds.”

 

Ferrets: Ferrets interact well with children of any age, but require a lot of work and produce strong odors. Vet and care costs are high. 

Fish: It’s the ultimate starter pet! Fish can be ideal for children younger than 4, who may sit and watch them, trance-like, with curiosity. 

Most fish don’t last long, which may mean a rash of toilet-bowl funerals in the near future. Freshwater fish are generally easier to manage than tropical.

Rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters: These animals require minimal responsibility and cost. Rabbits, it’s good to note, are highly social and prefer a cage in the home’s “center of action.” 

Lifespan is another issue: Rabbits and guinea pigs live four to six years and hamsters only one to two. Hamsters are not always friendly to little hands.

Snakes and lizards: Though they can be social, reptiles are obviously not cuddly. 

Safe handling is extremely important: Reptiles aren’t suitable for independent play with a child. 

In fact, the CDC recommends keeping small turtles and other reptiles away from young children. 

Hundreds of people have become ill in several ongoing, nationwide salmonella outbreaks linked to small turtles in the U.S. Most victims have been younger than 5 years old.

Finally, snakes and lizards have significant environmental needs. Though these needs are fairly easy to maintain, they present significant upfront costs.


Life lessons, risks, rewards

Though parents, in general, would be wise to lower their expectations when it comes to children doing pet chores, the experience of being a pet owner does teach responsibility or at least the ability to consider another being’s needs and feelings.

Cindy Sovari, a Burnsville mother of three, is what you might call a pet fanatic. 

At one time her family owned 35 — including dogs, cats, guinea pigs, degus, chinchillas, bearded dragons, hedgehogs, tortoises, turtles, snakes, chickens, ducks, pheasants, quail, gerbils, rats, rabbits, pigeons, mice, hissing cockroaches, birds and a horse. 

“My children have built many loving bonds with the pets and have matured into caring and compassionate people because of those bonds,” Sovari said. “There have been tough losses in our family as part of owning pets, but this also builds character.”

Children may also learn about caring for animals in their old age. 

Geriatric dogs and cats often require more care than their adolescent counterparts. Illnesses of old age can be chronic and lasting, and that can impact a household, along with each pet’s inevitable demise.

Love and loss

If the entire family is committed to the care and responsibility of a pet, possible illness and loss shouldn’t be a deterrent. 

Disappointment happens unexpectedly throughout life, as your child will inevitably learn. For many, the reward of a loving connection with a pet far outweighs the risk of loss. 

Fourteen-year-old Caleb Andrew of Northfield said pets offer another benefit: They help kids feel calm.

“Coming home to a pet relieves stress,” he said. “It’s nice to have someone who doesn’t disagree with you. It’s just nice to have a friend.”  

Andrew said one of the biggest benefits of owning a pet is the amount of responsibility it teaches kids. 

“One of the downsides is that it takes time and energy,” Andrew said. “However, the time and energy spent is well worth it.” 


Jen Wittes is a freelance writer and mother of two who lives in St. Paul. Her beloved cats, Fred and George, were named after the Weasley twins from the Harry Potter series. Send questions to jwittes@mnparent.com.