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The most dreaded phrase in the parenting world? Not, not that one. Try this: "Can we get a dog?" Many parents would rather hear their children curse like sailors. Others may love the idea of junior romping through the backyard with a pet but wonder who is really going to do the work.
Well, let’s clear that up quickly: you are. “Parents should look at it as having an additional child,” says Michael Farber, DVM, owner of the West Chelsea Veterinary Hospital in New York. Children of all ages can and should help, but when Fluffy swallows a barrette and needs to go to the vet at 3 a.m., you’re driving.
That said, helping care for an animal is a great way for children to become more responsible and empathetic. “Usually feeding is the first and most rewarding chore,” says Farber. Children can also learn to help groom the pet, and should be included in the training process. Children “should not be allowed to walk the dog until they can fully control the pet, are mature enough to focus on the pet and clean up after it. And in urban areas the children should be old enough to be out on the street for 15-20 minutes unsupervised.”
Not sure you’re ready for a four-legged child? Farber suggests testing the waters by pet-sitting for a friend or fostering an animal from a shelter before committing. If you’re still interested, remember that different animals require different levels of time and energy. “Rats can be quite affectionate and responsive to good care,” says Farber, who also suggests hamsters, mice, and rabbits as low-maintenance pets for families. “They don’t always create as strong a bond with people, but do give children a sense of responsibility and attachment.”
Although famously aloof, cats can be loving and playful if given lots of attention early on, and they require relatively little time and space. Dogs, alas, are truly the babies of the pet world, demanding lots of exercise and attention. Research dog breeds carefully and select yours on the basis of temperament, not looks. Just like their two-legged siblings, baby pets require more work, so consider bringing a well-trained adult cat or dog into the house rather than a puppy or kitten.
Caring for a pet is a great way for kids to learn responsibility and develop an understanding and love of animals. If you do your homework and have realistic expectations, you and your children just may find that adding a furball to the family is the best decision you ever made.