Dr Richard C Woolfson
There is every likelihood that one day soon, your child will ask you for a pet. She’ll argue strongly that she is up to the challenge of caring for it. She’ll tell you that her friend has a dog/cat/hamster/gerbil/rabbit and that it is very easy to look after, requiring hardly any food, cleaning or care.
Your child aged five or six years may even tell you that a pet is the only thing she will ever ask from you again! Before giving in to this request, consider the following checklist:
Does your child understand the full responsibilities involved?
She may think of the pet only in terms of cuddling it and stroking it. Talk to her about all the other tasks of caring for a pet. For example, she will need to keep its cage clean, clear up any mess it makes in the house, and maintain the pet’s regular feeding and exercise schedule.
Spell it out to your child. Ask her to draw up a list of all the possible chores that caring for a pet might entail. It should consist of tasks to be done every day (feeding, giving it fresh water) and tasks to be done occasionally (cleaning the cage).
Is she the type of child that is likely to be capable of caring for a pet?
It’s a myth that having a pet will automatically teach your child how to become responsible. It might teach her that animals make a mess, and it might teach her that animals smell if they are not cleaned – but having a pet will not, by itself, teach your child how to be more responsible. So make sure she is up to the challenge of caring for the animal – the typical five-year-old assumes that she should have all the fun associated with a pet, but that the responsibility for more demanding aspects of animal care should rest with you.
Will your family adjust to life with a pet?
No matter how small and contained her intended pet will be (for instance, a goldfish kept in a small bowl, a hamster kept in its cage), it has to live somewhere in the house. You need to consider possible allergies that could be triggered by the presence of a furry animal.
In addition, you have to remember that you’ll need to make arrangements for animal care when you and your family go away on holiday. No pet can be left unattended for any significant length of time. You have to take all these issues into account.
How will your five-year-old cope with the pet’s death?
The biggest downside of allowing your child to have a pet is the inevitability that she will have to cope with its death at some point. No matter how much she claims to be prepared for the demise of this animal, the chances are that it will upset her at least for a couple of days or so anyway, possibly much longer.
A pet’s death is nearly always a source of dismay, and the longer she has cared for the pet, the more upset she will be. Try to judge if that situation is likely to be so distressing for her that it is best avoided altogether.
If you are satisfied on all these points, and you are convinced that she is ready to care for a pet, then go ahead! You’ll have great fun deciding on what kind of pet and the necessities to buy, so that your child has everything she needs to look after it.