Bringing a pet home for the first time is exciting for your child, but pet ownership is a responsibility that continues long after the initial excitement has worn off.
“Your child has to be aware that owning a pet is a commitment for the entire lifetime of the pet,” says Dr Francis Tay, a senior veterinary surgeon at The Animal Ark Veterinary Group.
“If he wants a pet with a relatively long life expectancy and you feel he isn’t ready, consider getting a pet with a shorter life expectancy and telling your child that he needs to practise being a good pet-parent first.”
When deciding which pet to get, consider these factors:
The pet’s lifespan
Some freshwater fish live for only a few months; hamsters live between two and three years; a cat may live 15 years or more; and a parrot may live for several decades.
Can your family commit to looking after the pet for the rest of its life?
Level of maintenance involved
Animals like hamsters and guinea pigs are not as difficult to maintain as, say, a large active dog, which needs daily walks, vaccinations, flea or tick protection, de-worming and the like, says Dr Estella Liew, a veterinarian at Mount Pleasant Central Veterinary Clinic.
Very intelligent birds, like African grey parrots and cockatiels, require constant enrichment, otherwise they may develop stress-related health problems such as feather loss. Also, some breeds of fish require a special diet and extra care.
Size and growth potential
Is your home big enough to accommodate a pet? “A large, active, intelligent dog may suffer behavioural problems if it is cooped up in a small apartment all day without supervision,” says Dr Tay.
“And a little mixed breed puppy with unknown parentage may grow to a size which the Housing Board considers unacceptable.”
Personality and temperament
Will the pet suit your child’s age and character?
“A large, boisterous Labrador is probably not the best choice for a timid toddler as it may knock your child over,” says Dr Liew.
“Similarly, an overzealous child may not know how to respect the personal space of a nervous cat.”
Before you bring home a new pet, it is also important to discuss with your child the following:
Being a responsible pet-owner
Educate your child on the needs of his pet and demonstrate how to fulfil them, Dr Liew says. Explain in simple terms why he cannot overfeed the fish, for instance, and make sure he handles his new pet gently and safely.
Remember that pets can pass parasite-causing diseases and fungal infections to humans, says Dr Tay. This is something to consider in the context of your family’s health.
Hygiene is critical
Remember to stress the importance of hygiene to your kid – encourage him to wash his hands after handling his pet. As a parent, you lead by example, Dr Tay adds. Your kid’s attitude towards the pet is a reflection of your attitude.
It’s not your maid’s pet
Emphasise empathy, avoid making your maid responsible for it, and make it clear to your young one that the pet’s well-being is a direct result of action or inaction on his part.