The fond memories and affectionate snuggles are the first things that come to mind when we think about our childhood pets, but kids have plenty more to gain from having a fuzzy (or feathery, or scaly) best pal. Here are just a few of the benefits of pet ownership for your littles:
1) Pets teach kids responsibility. Assigning age-appropriate pet care tasks and explaining their importance helps kids learn to keep up with their responsibilities and follow through.
2) Practicing caregiving and nurturing teaches kids how to care for others. Gail F. Melson, PhD, professor emeritus of developmental studies at Purdue University, in Indiana, and the author of Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children, writes that “Nurturing animals is especially important for boys because taking care of an animal isn’t seen as a ‘girl’ thing like babysitting, playing house, or playing with dolls.”
3) Pets teach kids empathy. Kids can understand that a pet has the same feelings as them but expresses them differently; learning how to interpret their body language and needs is an important lesson in caring for and identifying with others.
The end result is adorable scenes like this, described in Parents Magazine: “Natalie has her own reading tribe: We often find her curled up in her bed or lying in a den of blankets in a quiet nook of the house, reading to one or more of her cats. She pets them as she reads, stops to show them pictures and ask them questions. She even reassures them during scary parts of the story.”
4) Pets are good for your child’s health. Studies show that having pets as a child may prevent allergies.* Dogs also provide excellent motivation to get exercise: walking and running with dogs, playing fetch, and rolling around on the floor with the dog all are great for building muscles and burning calories!
With all of that said: having the right pet for the right age is key. Here are some guidelines for pets by age:
Babies: At this point, of course, a kid isn’t going to have “their own” pet, but any pets you have when baby arrives will need to be acclimated to the newest family member. For dogs, the ASPCA recommends planning carefully in advance and doing some serious obedience training to make sure everyone gets along and your dog isn’t too stressed out by the changes in his routine.
Cats will also need help adjusting to schedule changes, and new sounds and smells. Kitties only really respond to positive reinforcement, so use treats for training! I like the ASPCA’s suggestion to play the game of “Poke The Kitty” to get your cat used to grabby toddlers: “Very gently give your cat a little poke, pat or pinch. Then immediately give him a yummy treat or his dinner. Play this game at least two or three times a day until the baby arrives.”
Not all critters will warm up entirely to the baby, but when they do, you get some really awesome photo-ops and videos!
Toddlers: If you don’t already have a dog or cat, this probably isn’t a great time to get one, since toddlers are mobile enough to annoy or hurt an animal but not mature enough to understand why they shouldn’t do these things! For this age, stuffed animals and robotic pets are best. If your preschooler is clamoring for a pet of his own, how about an Aquabot 2.0? Their realistic movement will delight your kid, and they can even come into the bathtub! Bonus: no need to clean the tank.
Grade-schoolers: The Association of Pet Dog Trainers suggests that parents hold off on getting dogs until your youngest child is at least five years old. At this point, you can start giving kids age-appropriate ways to help you take care of the dog, too. As long as you don’t expect your child to do all of the pet care, you can also start them off at this age with a fish, sea monkeys, guinea pigs, or other rodents (rats are great because they’re friendly, smart, and less fragile than, say, mice or gerbils).
This is the age at which having a pet will really begin to teach kids responsibility and empathy, so you’ll want to help them research everything about their pet’s needs. Make sure they understand clearly what the animal needs, and what they’ll be expected to do. (This is also an age when you’ll get really great reactions if you give your kids a puppy for a holiday present!)
Middle-school and high school: At this point, your child is mature enough to care for their own pets, but may not be willing to prioritize spending time with them. So while your teen may really WANT a dog, a bird, a rabbit, or another high-maintenance pet, they may be better off with a lizard, a snake (shudder), or a tank full of fish. Teens also prize their privacy, so that’s another reason why a pet that lives in a tank in their room is a good idea.
Got any further stories or suggestions for kids and pets? Share them in the comments below!
*Although this is definitely not foolproof – I grew up with parakeets and am now allergic to bird feathers. Thankfully, I am not allergic to cats or dogs!