Over 30 percent of families in the U.S. own a dog or cat, and with good reason. Pets, with their quirks, their individual personalities, and their capacity for friendship and companionship, offer children an experience like none other. Of course, pets require daily care and can be a lot of work, but for most people, the benefits of pet ownership outweigh the downsides.
The Benefits of Having a Dog or Cat
Pets offer emotional perspective. Anyone who’s owned a dog understands that pets can offer comfort and friendship. A body of research has shown that pets can improve a child’s physical, cognitive, and social-emotional well-being in multiple ways. Psychologists at Oregon State University found that children who regularly cared for a pet were more cooperative and nurturing.
Pets foster social skills. Owning a dog or cat can build social competence. When out walking the dog, for example, you and your child may meet neighbors or fellow walkers who want to meet your pet or ask about its breed. Pets can spark conversation and connection that your child may not otherwise experience.
Pets boost physical health. A 2012 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that children who live with a dog or a cat during the first year of life have fewer ear infections and respiratory illnesses, leading researchers to theorize that owning a pet may help build a child’s immune system.
Choosing and Caring for a Family Pet
Many animals live 15 to 20 years or more, so it’s important to make this long-term commitment carefully. If your family is considering a pet, here are some things to think about:
- Think about your child’s age and developmental level—can your child be gentle with a fragile pet?
- How much time can you realistically devote to raising a pet? Children can help care for family pets, but parents should be prepared to shoulder a good portion of the responsibility.
- What benefits of owning a pet are you hoping to gain? For example, fish make fairly low-maintenance pets, but they’re not going to provide friendship or comfort in the way that a dog or cat would.
- Do allergies run in your family? If so, it’s a good idea to expose your child to a friend’s pets before you get a family pet yourself. The last thing you want to do is fall in love with a cat only to discover that your child is severely allergic to it.
- What kind or breed of pet works for your family’s style? Carefully research to find a breed suitable for your family.
- How will you find your family pet? Adopting a dog or cat from a shelter can be a good option, but be sure the animal has had a behavioral screening to ensure it’s suitable for children.
Dealing with the Loss of a Pet
For many people, pets become beloved family members. When they die, whether by accident, illness, or old age, children and adults alike can feel intense grief and loss
. The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement
offers many developmentally appropriate suggestions for helping your child deal with the loss of a pet, such as providing extra comfort, listening and answering your child’s questions, and holding a family memorial or sharing memories.
Are You Ready for a Family Pet?
Of course, pet ownership isn’t for everyone and that’s okay. Children who might not be ready for a pet can gain many of the same benefits of having a dog, cat, or other animal by playing with a friend’s pets or visiting animal shelters. If your family is ready for a pet, owning a pet can be one of the highlights of the childhood experience.
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