A pet is often a child’s first lesson in responsibility and, tragically, their first experience of death. But figuring out the right animal to add an extra dose of love, loyalty, and just a little bit of chaos into your home requires a broad perspective. The best way to pick a pet is to consider every stage of an animal’s life—from bringing it home to saying goodbye. Here’s a guide to help you choose the perfect furry (or scaly) friend for your family.
From the second a parent hears “Dad can we get a …” they know they’re sunk. Children are tenacious and it’s almost guaranteed that some critter will be smelling up the joint eventually.
But what kind of critter?
While there are more exotic pets out in the world, the legality of owning them can often vary from state to state. A kid might love a sugar glider but, if they live in Pennsylvania, they’re out of luck. It’s also important to note that exotic pets come with increased responsibilities and cost. Even run-of-the-mill reptiles need the sort of careful attention that youth pet owners are seldom up to. In fact, three out of four pet reptiles do not live past one year, largely due to their owners.
Truth About Cats and Dogs
Happily, most kids are willing to bargain. They’re much more interested in getting some animal than picking any given species. If that’s the case, then it’s probably best to look into the big two: cats and dogs. Choosing between them is essentially a matter of space and cost.
For smaller households with limited budgets and time, a cat is the way to go. Contrary to popular belief, scientists have shown cats are both social and trainable. But they can be pricey little creatures. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reports that cats have an average annual cost of about $670. For families with limited space and cash, but plenty of time to invest, a small dog may be the answer (clocking in at about $580, annually).
As a dog gets larger, however, the amount of space required increases and so does the average annual cost of keeping your pup alive and kicking. Care for a large dog can run up to an average of $850 annually. The energy to care for them, however, remains relatively constant.
Making a transition to a new home is both exciting and fraught with dangers for people and pets. It’s best for parents to be observant for the first few weeks, just to make sure nothing seems off.
While cats are notoriously chill about where they happen to be at any minute, most vets recommend giving them a measured introduction to their new homes. The process includes keeping them in their own room for a few days so they can get a feel for the sounds and the scents of your household, and then gradually allowing them to explore their entire domain.
Dogs, being dogs, will likely do a bunch of sniffing and opt to stay close to their new people. However, parents should keep in mind that a dog’s personality might take a while to emerge. Both parents and kids should be cautious, considering dog bites are one of the most common reasons children are taken to emergency departments. Most bites come from the family dog.
A Long Happy Life
Importantly, kids need to understand that pets are not toys. They are living creatures with good days, bad days, and often their own ideas about how the world should work. Parents should set the ground-rules for care and empathy as early as possible. That takes some good modeling. A kid who sees a parent loving a pet will also show love. But a parent who is always yelling at the animals shouldn’t be shocked if his or her kid does the same.
And when the relationship between child and dog works out, it does so spectacularly. Recent research suggests the kid-pet relationship can be profound, to the point of eclipsing sibling relationships. Pets have also been linked to better health and emotional outcomes for children.
In the best of circumstances, parents will know the end is near well before a pet passes. Those weeks or month are a good opportunity to prepare a child for pet death. These conversations can start as questions, based on observations of death in the natural world (leaves falling, grass and insects dying, a squirrel in the road). Then, having frank discussions about how death can make us scared, sad, or angry can help normalize your child’s feelings when the pet does pass.
When a pet dies, a ceremony is appropriate. Even for a goldfish. Not only does memorializing help the family work through grief, it helps them understand the process of death and the ways in which we honor the ones we love.