What to consider when choosing a pet for your family
Choosing a pet

For those of us who know what it means to have and love pets, explanations about why are not really necessary. The truth is that domestic animals add another dimension to family life by making it fuller and richer.

Families who have pets tend to see their animals as an extension of the family and include their pet as a family member. And although we all know there is a huge difference between the human species and domestic animals such as dogs, cats, fish and birds, remembering this distinction can sometimes be a challenge.

Why it's a long-term decision

Deciding to have a pet tends to be the relatively easy part of the whole process. Pet ownership is a long-term commitment; the average lifespan for a small dog is 11 years and around 12 years for a cat.

Animal food, vet care, flea and worm treatments, boarding and clipping (if necessary) all add to the cost. And this is important if you want to share your living space with an animal, particularly one which is likely to be around for at least 10 years or more.

It is possible for animals to infect humans with some types of diseases. This is known as zoonosis and although uncommon, is still worth remembering. Responsible pet ownership is a commitment and responsibility and not a decision to be taken likely.

The benefits of children sharing their home with a pet

  • Building feelings of empathy. Kids who are emotionally connected to their pets see the animal’s needs as similar to their own. Food, water, shelter and love are shared, essential requirements for a happy life.
  • Learning about different animals and what is so unique about them.
  • Helps to boost feelings of altruism. Caring for another living being means that our own needs don’t always take priority.
  • Teaching skills in sharing and responsibility. Domestic pets tend to belong to the whole family, not just one member.
  • How to prioritise. Pets that need feeding and attention tend to want it ‘now’. They don’t have the mental capacity to comprehend delayed gratification!
  • Learn to see their parents loving and showing affection in a different way. Animal generated love is a different form of inter-human love and it helps kids to see their parents in this different light.
  • Imagination building. Many families share intricate stories and conversation around their pet’s exploits. These tend to make little sense to anyone else but the family involved.
  • Learning about death and dying. The first exposure many children have to death is through their pet’s death. Although this is a hard lesson, it is still a necessary one.

Types of pets to consider

  • Cat
  • Dog
  • Rabbit
  • Birds, such as budgerigar, canary or cockatiel. Be mindful that parrots can be very noisy, but also very bright.
  • Guinea pig
  • Tropical fish
  • Mouse or rat
  • Snake/lizard/reptile
  • Chickens. These have become very popular for backyards.
  • For larger properties: horses, cows, donkey or perhaps a llama?

Even if you’ve always thought of yourself as a cat or dog person, this may be the time to challenge that view. Ask your kids what they would like and be open to their suggestions. Your partner may have very different views to yourself depending on their own childhood experience. Consider which particular pet as a family decision.

Before you choose your pet: considerations around the home

You can really be as creative as you like when it comes to choosing a pet for your family. Space, costs, time and care needs all need to be considered. But other aspects also need to be thought of too:

  • Your living arrangements. Do you own your property or rent? Have you checked with your landlord and are you aware of your lease agreement? Are you allowed to have a pet there or are you just assuming (and hoping) it will be OK?
  • Cost of vet care. Smaller animals tend to cost less when it comes to specialist care but not always. An avian (bird) vet can charge as much for their services as a large animal specialist.
  • Who is going to be the primary caregiver for the pet? Kids tend to be very keen to begin with but their interest wanes once the novelty has worn off.
  • Commitment to obedience classes if you’re getting a dog. This is no minor process and involves weeks/months of training, homework, fees and motivation.
  • Allergies for anyone in the family. Taking antihistamines to manage allergic reactions is a reality for many pet owners and it’s not too much fun.
  • Phobias to particular animals. The way to manage true fear is not to just bring an animal home one day.
  • Yard space. Large animals (obviously) need a lot more space than smaller ones.
  • Dogs need to be fenced in properly. The time to prepare your fencing is not when you’ve got a puppy in the car.
  • Have you checked with your local council to see if pets require registering to keep on your property? Cats tend to roam and not all neighbours are cat lovers.
  • Who will care for the animal when you go away? The time to consider this is when you’re discussing the type of pet you’ll be choosing.
  • Importantly, think with your head and not with your heart. This is incredibly difficult to do but as the adult parent you’ll need to make many decisions for your family. Making the right decision about the right pet is just one of them.

Children with autism and pets

Latest research has found that pets can be particularly helpful for children with autism. Having a domestic pet seems to support building the child’s social skills. According to Dr Gretchen Carlisle from the University of Missouri, one of the researchers working on this project, pets can act as a ‘social lubricant’ when pets are in the home, classroom or other social setting. Check here for more information about this intriguing research.

More tips on pet ownership

  • If you already have a pet, consider if they want to share their family. Don’t assume that they’ll play happy families just because you want them to.
  • Are you choosing a pet which ideally would love company? Some animals are more solitary and do fine on their own, but others are miserable if they’re the only one.
  • Are you planning for your pet to breed? If you choose a purebred pet then breeding them means a whole new set of decision making.
  • If you aren’t planning to breed your pet, then make sure you have them desexed as soon as possible. Domestic pets can be amazingly fertile and conceive when they seem relatively immature.
  • Consider a rescue animal rather than a purebred. Every city/town has some form of pet donation or rescue league. These pets are often screened, wormed, desexed and assessed very carefully before they are ready for re-homing. Check the websites of various pet rescue locations. 

This article was written by Jane Barry for Kidspot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz

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