Living with a pet brings many benefits to children. The non-judgemental companionship that a pet provides can help their mental health, looking after a pet can teach responsibility and compassion. Living in a pet-owning household can also reduce childhood allergies.
However, there are also risks which need to be managed. Children can cause stress and injury to pets unintentionally and pets may injure children if interacted with inappropriately. Young children should never be left alone with any pet, however docile. Pets bought for the children may become neglected as the level of responsibility proves too much and their interests move on to something else.
Here are a few things to remember:
Rabbits do not make good children’s pets
Rabbits need very careful handling and are easily stressed. They can cause serious injuries to themselves and their handler if they are not held correctly. They do not enjoy being picked up and cuddled.
Even the most gentle dog can bite if pushed to their limit
Children should always be supervised around dogs and should be taught to recognise signs of stress (ears back, turning away, lip licking, whites of the eyes showing). They should be taught never to disturb a dog when it is resting or eating.
For further information, see Why Do Dogs Bite?
An adult always has primary responsibility for any pet
Legally, children are not responsible for their animals. Under the Animal Welfare Act, the buck stops with a person who is over 16 years of age. This should be a reality, not just a theory. If your children want a pet, don’t give in unless you are willing to take full responsibility for their health and welfare needs.
Be aware of hygiene
Children are more at risk of bacteria and parasites. It is important to make sure that parasite control is kept up to date, and raw feeding dogs and cats is not advisable.
Do not allow pets to lick your children’s faces and teach your children to wash their hands after playing with their pet.
Owning a pet is not the only option
If pet ownership is not appropriate for you at the moment, there are many other ways for children to benefit from being around animals. Visiting the local farm or visiting friends who have pets (make sure they are used to children though to reduce stress). Teach your children to never touch a strange dog without asking the owner’s permission, however friendly they seem.
Short term fostering of rescue animals or pets belonging to elderly people in hospital may be an option in some areas if the long-term responsibility of a pet is a concern, or puppy walking for charities such as Guide Dogs and Dogs for Good.