Kids and pets: What you need to know before adding a pet to your family

Monday, February 4, 2013
A dog available for adoption at Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary. (Laura Simon)

Every kid who wants a pet will beg, plead and promise to take care of that pet, but for parents, the decision is a little more complicated.

"A pet is a big commitment and requires a genuine interest. There are no hard and fast rules to let us know when the time is right," says Dr. Kelly Smith of Dogwood Veterinary Hospital in Cape Girardeau.

Before adopting, consider how much time it will take to care for the pet, and if you can commit to the lifetime of that pet, says Kelly Goff, director of the Humane Society of Southeast Missouri. Money is another factor to consider: Can you afford not just the adoption fees, but the food, cat litter, medical care and any emergencies that pop up?

If your answers are yes, Goff recommends bringing the whole family out to meet your potential pets.

"At our shelter we are really good about knowing which animal will be a good fit," she says. "If a family has a small kid and they're looking at a dog that is not great with small children, we will tell you that and help guide you to which pet might be a good fit."

Every pet is different, but Smith says Cavalier King Charles spaniels, golden retrievers and beagles tend to be more social and gentle.

"It is important to choose a pet based on their disposition, energy level and temperament," she adds. "It's also important to consider things such as the grooming that a dog requires. Some dogs only need an occasional bath and brushing, while others require regular trips to the grooming salon."

Also make sure to give your kids a lesson in pet safety.

"The most important thing for them to understand is respecting the pet. It is not acceptable to hit, pull ears or try to ride the pet," says Smith. "Smaller children cannot understand that a pet needs space, so it is imperative to closely supervise interactions. I also recommend a basic obedience class, because a well-mannered pet is a joy to live with."

Once you bring your furry friend home, understand that with kids, the novelty of the new pet will eventually wear off, says Smith. Make it a constant expectation that everyone will help care for the pets. At Smith's house, caring for the family dog and cat is incorporated into her kids' chore chart so they each have some responsibility for the pets every day.

"Children need to understand that caring for a pet is a lifelong responsibility, but as a parents, we know that the ultimate responsibility lies with us," says Smith.