How many times has your kid begged you for a pet, and how often have you said, "We'll see"? If you have a grade schooler with a burning desire for a furry friend, now's the time to assess whether having a dog, a cat or even a bowl of fish is right for your child—and your family.
First, take a look at the benefits of an animal pal. "A pet can be wonderful for a child, offering unconditional love, promoting responsibility and social interaction skills and helping your child learn tenderness and how to care for other living things," says Bonnie V. Beaver, DVM, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association and a professor at Texas A&M University's veterinary college in College Station.
With these perks in mind, move on to the biggest consideration: whether your child and you are ready to take on pet-care obligations. Even when they say they'll be dedicated to their animal's care, school-age kids are often inconsistent about responsibilities, says Dr. Beaver. That means you'll need to be involved in the tending and training. You, a working parent, will have to carve out time to teach your child how to interact with and care for the pet—and then you must regularly monitor these activities after the novelty wears off. If life already feels hurried and stressed, having to nag your child to feed the dog—or, worst-case scenario, winding up doing all the pet care yourself—may be the last thing you need. On the other hand, some tense families find that all those wags and licks or purrs and meows help parents and kids unwind more easily.
If you do decide that your family is ready, there are specific pet-related tasks that your grade schooler can learn to do, such as give food at appropriate times (and learn not to bother a pet that's eating), brush and bathe the animal and get involved in obedience training. Remember that kids must first learn to be gentle (boys ages 5 to 9 are the group most often bitten by pets, because they like to roughhouse, and many dogs and cats don't). Again, parents must devote time to working with their children and pets.
Your child may have all the best intentions in the beginning but then lose interest in his pet's care. In this case, you must be ready to step in and assume responsibility. But the flip side is that kids who aren't so interested at first can end up with their pet as their best friend—one who makes meeting people easy, offers affection without judgment and never, ever betrays a secret.
Dog, Cat, Gerbil or Fish?
If you've decided to get a pet, make an informed decision about the right type. You, the involved parent, must like the choice. "Make an appointment to talk to a vet," suggests Dr. Beaver. "Discuss pros and cons of different pets or breeds and time and money needs."
Then consider these factors:
Your finances Dogs and cats can be costly to feed and care for. Consider usual vet visits as well as possible long-term medical care in an emergency.
Your space Do you live in an apartment? If so, it may be hard to give a big dog the exercise it needs.