Pros And Cons Of Getting A Small Animal Pet For Your Child

Small animal pets like rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs and ferrets can bring a lot of joy to your child while teaching important lessons, as long as you consider carefully before adding one to your family.

Why contemplate adding a small animal pet to your household? According to enthusiasts, veterinarians and parents, the benefits of pet ownership outweigh the extra responsibilities. Chief among those benefits: the strong bond a child can form with his or her pet.

Prepare For The Joy Of Caring
“The human/animal bond is an amazingly strong and beautiful event,” said Peter G. Fisher, DVM, past president of the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians and a practitioner at Pet Care Veterinary Hospital in Virginia Beach, Va. “Allowing the child to experience this bond is a true gift in itself.”

Parents of children who own pets report that as children begin to form relationships with their small furry pets, they learn to respect all living things. As they learn about compassion, children who own pets also learn about reliability, no matter what their age. Through observing their parents, young people begin to understand that pet ownership comes with certain obligations.

“Children can start to learn about the responsibility of caring for another living creature as well as the importance of being sensitive to another’s needs,” explained Connie Orcutt, BFA, DVM, ABVP. “This can then be carried over to interactions with a child’s peers and others.” 

The benefits of pet ownership convince many parents to add a pet to their families, and small mammals often make ideal first-time pets for children. “The advantage of small animal pets is that, in general, they do not require a large amount of housing space and don’t need a large area for exercise and activity,” said Rene C. Gandolfi, DVM, a veterinarian at the Castro Valley Animal Hospital in Castro Valley, California. “This is especially true for the small rodents.”

Commit To The Pet’s Care
Before you and your child start searching for the perfect critter, consider the commitment your family — especially you, as a parent — will need to make to a small pet. Do not enter pet ownership lightly, regardless of what type of animal you choose for your child.

Critter enthusiasts agree that their favorite animals generally require less care than larger pets, yet they stress that potential owners need to recognize the possible disadvantages of pet ownership. “The primary disadvantage of having pets around is that it’s more work for the grown-ups, and it can be costly,” said Susan Davis, a national educator with the House Rabbit Society (HRS) based in Richmond, California. “Animals need to be fed, watered and groomed. They need to have back-up care when the family is out of town. They need medical attention from time to time.”

Veterinarians emphasize that parents must be willing to care for their children’s pets and supervise the pets’ caretaking. “In a situation where the child is not responsible and the parent is lacking in supervision of the pet’s care, the pet will suffer from neglect whether it be from malnutrition, poor hygiene or lack of environmental enrichment,” Fisher said.

A child’s interaction with a pet should be supervised, as well. “Some animals can become stressed by too frequent handling by small children,” Orcutt said.  

boy with ferret
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
Adding a pet to the family means parents and children work together to provide proper care.

Evaluate Your Child’s Readiness 
The benefits seem tempting, the potential disadvantages surmountable, and the sweet smile on your child’s face as he or she asks for a pet proves hard to resist. But is your child (and are you) ready to take on the responsibility? 

The most important factor? “Interest — on the part of the child, but mostly on the part of the parent,” said Phyllis Ripley, a guinea pig owner from Tucson, Ariz. “My four boys — at varying ages — all had the opportunity to take care of animals and simply were not interested. My daughter has been interested in, actively involved with, and head-over-heels in love with all animals from the time she was born.”

Such strong love and interest should accompany a “consistent pattern of caring for and being sensitive toward animals,” Orcutt said. She also recommends that parents determine if their children possess a sense of responsibility and the ability to adhere to routines.

Once a child demonstrates devoted interest and basic caretaking skills, the parent can help him or her choose the pet that best fits the family’s lifestyle and needs. “First off, [parents] need to help do the research into the proper care of the new pet,” Fisher said. “This includes husbandry issues such as housing and bedding, what constitutes a nutritionally balanced and appropriate diet, and overall hygiene. All these important factors need to be discussed with the child prior to the investment, and the parent needs to determine if the child truly understands the meaning of responsible pet ownership.”

When assessing your child’s ability to own a pet, consider your own feelings about the commitment. “Because the pet will really be owned by both the child and parent, the question is, ‘Is the parent ready to do everything if the child bails out?’” Gandolfi said.

Make sure you research your options thoroughly, advises Fisher. “Do not buy the pet on a whim!” he emphasized. “The parent needs to help the child explore the various requirements of proper care of the species in question. The library, bookstore, your veterinarian and the Internet are all sources of good information.”

Delegate Pet Chores
Which pet chores can you reasonably expect a child to perform? You, as a parent, must make that determination after considering your child’s age and reliability.

“I have seen children as young as 5 or 6 who could provide conscientious care for a rat or hamster, and teenagers who couldn’t keep an empty cage,” Gandolfi said. “The parents must know their children and judge the maturity.”

If you already own another pet, your child may have absorbed important pet-care habits from watching you handle pet chores. “Demonstrating the care required for a pet and including a child in the daily routine will help to teach him or her about the responsibilities involved with keeping a pet,” Orcutt said.

Once your child becomes familiar with the pet chores, start delegating simple tasks. Gandolfi suggests letting your child change the food and water on a daily basis, and alerting the parent to anything unusual about the pet, such as wounds or “lumps and bumps.”

Fisher agrees. “It would be reasonable to expect the child to make sure the water was clean and changed daily, and that appropriate food was available at all times,” he said. “When it comes to cleaning the cage, many children require parental supervision or help.”

Davis said additional responsibilities young owners could realistically handle include brushing a larger pet and helping to socialize and tame a pet. She recommends including a child in pet chores as soon as possible. “Children can begin to take some responsibility for rabbit care as young as the age of 2 years. My 2-year-old son, for instance, gives the rabbits their carrots every morning,” she said. 

Older children may be able to handle almost all the pet-care chores on their own, albeit with frequent reminders from their parents. “I would say that children should be at least 8 years old before taking on the responsibility of a small mammal,” Fisher said. “Parental supervision is a must whenever a child cares for a pet of his or her own, as children can get distracted easily and sometimes forget about the day-to-day maintenance of the pet’s needs.”

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