Getting a family pet is a milestone moment in any kid’s life. While your child may be excited about the opportunity to cuddle a furry little kitten or chase a puppy around the backyard, there are also some extremely important life skills that having an animal in the house can teach young ones, such as responsibility, compassion, and care taking. With these lessons also come a lot of responsibility, which is something each family needs to consider before making the commitment of welcoming a new addition to their home.
Choosing a pet that needs exercise is also a major benefit to children. According to the CDC, one way having a pet helps supports a healthy lifestyle is by increased opportunities for exercise and outdoor activity—but will your child be dedicated enough to the animal? That’s a whole different question.
Getting a family pet is not a decision that should be taken lightly. “There are a few things I always keep in mind when people ask me if they should get a pet for their children. Are they showing interest in having a pet? Let's first be honest on who the pet is for.” Katie Hastings, licensed veterinary technician and current Regional Nursing Director for Veterinary Emergency Group, tells Motherly.
When you’re looking to make the leap into pet parenthood, look out for these 5 important signs that your kid is ready for a family pet
1. Your child likes animals—and shows kindness toward them
While this may sound like a given, because many kids love animals, having a pet of your own—one that’s around 24/7—is much different than visiting the local dog park and watching from afar. Animals, like humans, all have different personalities and are not always predictable.
“Too often I see pets come in for behavioral appointments, or even euthanasia, because a child was bitten when not respecting an animal's boundaries,” Hasting shares. “If they don't understand how to be gentle, it may be best to wait to bring a pet home.”
Before making a commitment to a pet, first try spending time with a close family member or friend who has the same type of animal you’re looking to get and see how your child handles it.
If your child has been knocking chores off their to-do list and shows maturity in following direction, this is a good sign that they will be able to handle some of the leg work that comes with having a pet.
Duties for a family pet can be easily broken up so that a child doesn’t have to take on the entire load of work. “It doesn't have to be all care, but kids can learn so much from being responsible for even one aspect of pet care,” Hastings says. Kids can help scoop food into a bowl, or open the back door to let the dog outside.
3. Your child can follow a schedule and knows the importance of one
Just like we need to eat when we’re hungry, so do pets. If your child is aware of how a schedule works and knows how to follow one of their own, they may be ready to take on a pet. Kids should know that the dog gets walked at the same time each day, or that the rabbit needs 30 minutes of playtime at a certain time. If your child thinks the pet can wait to eat or go to the bathroom whenever it’s convenient for them, you may want to hold off a bit.
4. Your child can go with the flow
This might sound like an odd addition to the list, since we’ve stressed the importance of a schedule, but if your kid is sensitive to accidents—hey, poop happens—they might not be ready to help house train a pet. In turn, this can become stressful for everyone involved, including the animal. Make sure your child knows that having a pet is a big responsibility, but it’s also a very fun one.
5. Your child can help choose the pet and has been consistent in their desire to get one
It’s easy for someone to fall in love at first sight with an animal—especially kids. As you’re walking around the local shelter, big puppy eyes gaze at your kid and they feel instantly drawn to that animal. While that’s a wonderful sign that their heart is in the right place, make sure that feeling isn’t fleeting.
If your little one continues to bring up the animal to you, or can’t stop talking about all the things they’d do to welcome the pet home, perhaps they are, in fact, ready to commit to that animal. If your child forgets about the dog the second they see a fish or bunny and become instantly enamored, you may want to hold off until an exact decision on which type of pet they’d most want around 24/7 is established.