What you need to know about picking the right Furry (or not so furry) friend for your family
Make no bones about it: kids love animals. A family pet—whether a dog, cat, bird, rabbit, lizard or even a rat—can enrich your child’s life.
However, getting a pet shouldn’t be a snap decision, and experts agree that parents must be a pet’s primary caretaker. Children don’t learn responsibility overnight by simply having a pet to care for. No matter how well-intentioned a child may be, he or she can be easily distracted by other interests and obligations, which can endanger an animal. It is also important to consider how long you will be able to care for the pet.
Proper care of a pet takes time and money, but given the benefits of animal companionship for the entire family, it is well worth the investment. Here’s what you need to know about adding an animal to your home.
Enthusiastic friends and protectors, dogs are among the most loyal members of any family. Dogs bring families into the great outdoors during their daily walks, offering an opportunity for exercise and time outside.
Wendy Ladd, of the North Shore Animal League of America, recommends medium-size dogs for families dwelling in apartments. “Smaller dogs tend to have a lot of energy and they bounce around off the walls a lot,” she says. Something else to consider: Many purebreds have sight problems or hip dysplasia because of inbreeding.
Jacque Lynn Schultz, Companion Animal Programs advisor for the ASPCA’s National Shelter Outreach, reminds parents that dogs require a large time commitment. “If you are gone 10-12 hours a day every day, then you are better off not getting a dog,” she says. “Dogs are social creatures and they do want the families around; they need exercise; they need to get outside at least 3 times a day to go to the bathroom.”
Some dogs’ barking may bother neighbors, and some dogs require more training than others––but with the proper investment, your family will have a loyal and long-term friend.
Cats make fantastic pets for families in apartments. They seldom bother the neighbors and don’t require walks. Most cats are very clean, and love affection from kids, even if it is on their own terms. Like any pet, cats require a substantial time investment, but they are more self-sufficient than dogs.
A key to successful cat ownership is consistency. Find a spot for the litter box—bathrooms work great because it is easier to clean up spills from tile—and keep it there.
Rabbits are inquisitive, intelligent and very social. They can be litter box-trained just like a cat, and thus need not be confined to a cage at all times. A spayed or neutered rabbit (essential) is a gentle and quiet pet that loves affection. However, Mary Cotter, manager of the New York City chapter of the House Rabbit Society, reminds parents that rabbits are prey animals and physically delicate as well. Parents must always supervise children when they interact with the family rabbit. If a rabbit is grabbed unexpectedly, it may kick a child with its powerful back legs. When rabbits are dropped, they can break their legs or back.
Given a rabbit’s somewhat fragile constitution, families should wait until children are older before they bring a rabbit into the home.
Dr. Katherine Quesenberry, a veterinarian at the Animal Medical Center of the Elmer & Mamdouha Bobst Animal Hospital, says that reptiles make interesting pets: “A lot of people like turtles, snakes, iguanas, and bearded dragons.” Eddie Sutton agrees. Sutton has a six-year-old son who is allergic to cats, but really wanted a pet, so they brought home a bearded dragon. “You can develop a nice relationship with bearded dragons. You can put them on your shoulder and they don’t mind. We’ve grown quite fond of Rocky,” says Sutton.
Dr. Quesenberry emphasizes that each reptile has very specific dietary and habitat requirements.
While bearded dragons may be handled by kids (albeit with care), Dr. Quesenberry reminds parents that reptiles are not as interactive as a dog or cat.
Before obtaining any reptile, it is critical to do extensive research on the animal’s habitat and diet.
For families with fur allergies or space issues, birds can be very rewarding family pets. Dr. Quesenberry advises that smaller species like parakeets, cockatiels and love birds are better for kids than larger birds. These breeds are not only intelligent, but they possess sweet personalities. Cockatiels have been domesticated for over a century, and are particularly well-suited for family life. Parents should always supervise children while they feed and handle pet birds, and children under the age of six should not handle them at all. “You really can’t squeeze them,” Dr. Quesenberry says. Plus, it is important to train your bird to step onto your finger.
Other Small Furry Friends
Most small animals have short life-spans of no more than three years. “That might work well for parents who do not want to commit to caring for an animal for a decade or more, but also means that parents need to be prepared to help kids deal with death,” Dr. Quesenberry notes. Two small animals that make great companions for kids are guinea pigs, and— hold your breath—rats.
Dr. Quesenberry says that guinea pigs are perennially popular pets, and with a five to six year lifespan, they live longer than hamsters and mice.
As for rats, the little girl in the movie Flushed Away was on to something. Cotter at the House Rabbit Society often recommends that parents consider a pet rat for kids. “Generally, moms make a face, and say, ‘Ewww,’ and I can understand that, but they make excellent pets. Rats are intelligent—they will respond to a child calling their name and can be trained—and they are hardy. If a child drops one, there’s not too much damage.”
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