Picking the perfect pet

Experts offer factors to consider for choosing a child's animal companion

Experts offer factors to consider for choosing a child's animal companion

June 04, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Think twice before adopting that playful puppy as a playmate for your toddler.

Pets can make wonderful additions to families - but many factors must be considered to choose the pet that best suits a family's dynamic, experts said.

"For young children, a young puppy is about the worst choice," said animal behaviorist Pat Miller of Fairplay, owner of Peaceable Paws. Miller's work there includes teaching behavior modification for dogs and helping pets adjust to new families.

Puppies' sharp teeth and frequently uncontrollable behavior - think toddler times two - make them ill-suited to families with little kids, she said.


The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals at on the Web suggests parents consider the following factors before deciding whether or not to tackle caring for a new pet:

  • Children's ages. Many experts recommend a child be at least 6 years old before a pet is brought into the family, but parents can best judge their children's maturity. Children should exhibit self-control and understand and obey the word "no" before interacting with family pets, according to information from the Humane Society of the United States at on the Web. Most young children are not responsible enough to care for cats, dogs and other higher-maintenance pets. Youngsters just getting their own footing also might pose a health hazard to kittens, tiny puppies and other small animals. Older, larger animals might make better pets for families with youngsters because puppies and kittens are fragile, require extra time and care, and are prone to play-related scratching and biting, the Humane Society states.

  • Children's desire for pets. Not all children are comfortable with animals around the house, or are ready for the responsibility.

  • Cost. Pet-care costs - including food and veterinary visits - continue long after the bill for adopting or buying a pet has been paid. A cat costs about $350 to $400 per year and a small- or medium-sized dog costs about $400 to $500 per year, according to the ASPCA.

  • Commitment. Pets are living creatures that require a full-time commitment for the duration of their lives - sometimes more than 20 years. That means Mom and Dad might have to take over responsibility for Fido after Little Johnny goes off to college. It also means that pet care must be provided during family vacations and other absences.

  • Hassles. Caring for a pet isn't always easy. There likely will be accidents on the floor, clawed-over furniture, barking in the middle of the night and other unpleasant animal-related actions. Can you deal with that?

  • Responsibility. Pets can't teach kids responsibility - and irresponsible kids can harm pets. It's up to adult caregivers to make sure children are ready for the responsibility of owning a pet.

"Younger children oftentimes can't be held responsible for complete care," said Paul Miller, executive director of the Humane Society of Washington County and Pat Miller's husband. "Parents are going to be the primary caregivers in most cases."

Children of different ages can handle varying pet-related responsibilities. A 4-year-old might be responsible enough to scoop a measuring cup full of cat or dog food into the pet's bowl in the morning and in the evening, or throwing a rubber ball for the pooch - but shouldn't be charged with walking the dog on a leash, said Barbie Ginck, adoption coordinator for the Humane Society of Washington County.

"You cannot predict when a cat or another dog will catch your dog's attention," she said. "The dog will naturally want to chase it."

A dog's breed is one of many factors that affect temperament and behavior - and all dogs have the potential to bite, Paul Miller said.

"Small children and dogs should never be left unsupervised," he said. "Things happen."

About 800,000 Americans seek medical attention for dog bites each year - and children, especially kids between the ages of 5 and 9, account for 50 percent of dog bite injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at on the Web. Many children get bitten while visiting other people's homes because the kids aren't familiar with the dog's routines and tendency to protect the resources it considers valuable - including toys, food, furniture and guardians, Miller said.

If you don't know a dog's history, it's important to observe the prospective pet's behavior before adopting from an animal shelter, reputable breeder or individual, Pat Miller said. Animal shelters such as the Humane Society of Washington County perform behavioral assessments on incoming animals before they are adopted, but there are no guarantees. Miller suggested that families with young children avoid "mouthy" dogs - those which like to put their teeth on human skin, rowdy dogs, or canines that get anxious if you try to remove a toy, food or other valuable resource. A potential pet pooch's tail should wag and "eyes light up" when it sees a child in the room, Miller said.

"The dog has to think that kids walk on water, that kids are the most wonderful thing in the world. He should want to hang out with the kids rather than the adults," she said. "Kids are inevitably going to do things that irritate the dog. If you have a dog who thinks kids are wonderful, he'll forgive those things."

The best dogs for kids are animals that receive proper socialization, humane training, exercise and attention; that are given adequate food, water, shelter and veterinary care; that are sterilized; and that are safely confined, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

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