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Take your time

There’s a lot to think about before you introduce a new pet into your family – especially if you have very young children.

Owning a pet comes with a huge amount of responsibility for both parents and children as many pets can live for at least 10 years; if you decide to get a tortoise, they can live for more than 50 years!

Before you make a commitment to owning any kind of pet, it’s worth taking some time to think through all the options to work out what kind of pet will be right for your family.

What kind of pet would be suitable?

Many families with young children often choose a puppy believing they are safer, easier to train, more adaptable and of course, so cute! However, because puppies are fragile, require much more time and care, and are prone to play-related scratching and biting, you need to think extra carefully about whether an adult dog who loves kids would be better for you. Some breeds of dog like Vizslas or Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are known to be better for families, so do investigate which breed is best.

Cats are more mobile than dogs and are able to jump out of the way of young children. They may also pose less of a threat of seriously biting or injuring a child; however, cats will defend themselves if they feel cornered or too suffocated with ‘love’ from children. Whilst also very cute, kittens can be a lot of work, so do consider how much time you have to donate to a kitten.

Rabbits make rewarding animals for adults but are not suitable for young children as they do not always enjoy being picked up and cuddled. Equally, gerbils can be difficult for children to handle. Hamsters are nocturnal so a family should be prepared for them to sleep a lot during the day and be active in their cages at night, which can be disturbing if kept in a child’s room.

Think about who in your household is going to be responsible for caring for the pet and how it will fit in with your existing schedule – how much time will you have to care and tend to their needs and will this be enough? If you work during the day, how long will the pets be left alone and will they have access to food and the outdoors? If you have older children, think how they could take on some of the tasks.

A good idea is to consider fostering a pet for a short period. Contact a rescue centre or animal charity to see if your family will be able to cope with the responsibilities of owning a pet before making the commitment. 

Does breed matter?

If you’re planning on getting a pet cat or dog, you may already have an idea of the type of breed you would like but it’s worth spending time researching the characteristics of your prospective pet’s temperament to determine if it’s one that’s right for your family. Different breeds have different temperaments with some being better around children than others.

If you are re-homing a pet, find out about its background and if it’s coming from a home with kids. 

Affordability

Pet insurance, or medical procedures like neutering/spaying will need to be factored in; as does as micro-chipping, vaccinations, grooming, food, equipment, toys and vet bills. These costs can amount up to a sizable sum and you should consider if you can afford these extra household costs now and in the future. If you decide to get a dog and their temperament does not fit in with your family or they are not house trained, the usual approach is to get some professional help which is an additional cost. However, some charities offer on-going advice and support for those animals re-homed. 

Where can you get a pet?

There are many animal rescue centres and animal charities available that offer a variety of pets that need a new home; it may be worth trying these first before considering the breeder option.

Some people are wary of getting perhaps an ex-stray who may have been mistreated, particularly where there are young children in the house. Speak to the rescue centre or animal charity to find out more about the pet’s history and if they’ve had any behavioural problems.

Loss of a pet

Losing your pet is probably not something you consider when making the decision to own a pet, but it is one of the important factors to think about and how it may impact on your child. A pet can integrate as part of the family and can form particularly strong bonds with children, helping them with social skills and cognitive development as they play with them, talk to them and even read to them.

Experiencing the death of a pet can be a child’s first experience of bereavement, and can be a very upsetting but a useful learning moment. Where possible, try and plan ahead about how best to handle the situation with your child if the worst happens, taking into consideration the life expectancy of your chosen pet, and prepare your children accordingly. Whilst the average lifespan of a dog is 13 years, hamsters on the other hand only tend to live for 2-3 years. The age of your child will influence how much they are affected by the loss. Younger children may not fully understand the concept of death but will be aware the pet is missing.

It is important for you to discuss your feelings of sadness openly and to share those feelings with your child, encouraging them to also express their emotions through talking, writing or drawing. Parents have to show that it is normal to have such feelings. Learning to cope with sad feelings is important and parents have to help their children with it because it could lay the foundation for how they deal with loss throughout their life.

Introducing your newborn to the family pet

The family pet may have been your ‘baby’ for years so, as with an older sibling, it’s worth preparing the pet for the new arrival. 

Key points to remember:

  • Take your time.
  • Do your research.
  • Do not impulse buy.
  • Replace a pet when the time is right.
  • Foster on a trial basis if you’re unsure.