If you've been wondering if your child is old enough for a pet, you're not alone. There are many things to consider before getting a pet for your child, and age appropriateness is one of the most important. Getting a kitten for your three-year-old may seem like a good idea, but it has the potential to be a disaster. Matching the pet to your child's age and abilities can help ensure the relationship is a positive one. Here are some guidelines to help you make this decision with your child.
Each child develops at his own pace, but none are really capable of caring for a pet before the age of four or five. If your preschooler shows interest and you think he's ready, consider a guinea pig. Guinea pigs have a gentle temperament and generally don't bite. They are large enough for a small child to handle without difficulty (as opposed to a mouse or hamster) and respond well to being held.
If you decide to get a pet for your child at this early age, don't expect that he'll be able to take care of it by himself. All activities - including play time - should be very closely supervised for your child's protection, as well as the pet's.
Once most children are six or seven, their ability to care for a pet increases. Veterinarian Lianne McLeod has developed a list of the top seven pets she recommends for children in their elementary years. The list consists of all caged animals, and includes gerbils, rats, mice, guinea pigs, hamsters, leopard geckos and Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Even at this age children need supervision, and it remains the parent's responsibility to ensure that the pet is being properly cared for.
Once a child reaches middle school age they are probably ready for their own dog, cat or rabbit. By now they are able to walk a dog and safely clean a litter box. By this age they should also be ready to accept a larger share of the pet's care. The ASPCA even recommends children of this age attending training classes with their dogs to help instill the importance of this responsibility.
Many teenagers have very active lives, and giving a dog or cat the attention they need may be difficult. Birds or fish are a good compromise, as they don't require as much companion time as cats or dogs. One thing to keep in mind when allowing your teenager to take on a new pet is the life expectancy of the animal. Many pets live several years, which means you may end up keeping and caring for the pet when your child leaves for college.
"The Right Pet for Your Child's Age," ASPCA.org
"Choosing Your Child's First Pet," Pet Sitters International
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