What to Consider Before Getting Your Child a Pet

Girl cuddling her puppy dog
sharoncudworth / Getty Images

At some point in their lives, nearly every parent will ponder the question: Should I get my child a pet? However, the real question is: Should my family get a pet? The decision to own a pet affects everyone in the family. No matter what they might say, children are not capable of being a pet’s sole caregiver. Parents will always need to oversee to ensure that the care is adequate. And a pet will affect siblings and other members of the household, so here are 5 things to consider before getting your child a pet. 

  • 01 of 05

    The Benefits of Pets

    Child walking his dog

    Let’s start with the positive. The benefits of pets are many, though somewhat intangible. Pets--whether a dog, cat or even a goldfish--can provide positive experiences that will shape your child in a way nothing else can. Pets can:

    Promote responsibility. While children are continually encouraged to take on more self-care--from learning to put the spoon in their own mouths all the way to driving themselves to school--being responsible for another being doesn’t happen as naturally. Parents must seek out opportunities to invest their children with the responsibility of caring for others. And since it will be a long time before a child is ready to provide care for another human, pets can be a stepping stone in this life lesson.

    Encourage your child’s nurturing side. There’s more to a pet than seeing to its physical needs. Most pets both give and must receive emotional support. A pet is a responsibility and also a friend. Pets can be a someone for children to confide in when they are sad, a playmate when they are bored, and someone to nurture when the pet grows old or sick. Pets offer a different kind of friendship than other children, thus helping round out a child’s early life experiences.

    Create bonding in the family. Not only do humans and pets bond, but humans can bond with each other through pets. The shared experience of owning a pet is something that siblings will carry with them their whole lives. Pets become part of the family, changing the experience for all.

    Reduce allergies. While allergies are often cited as a reason not to get a pet, research has shown that young children in households with pets are actually healthier. Early exposure to dogs and cats may build immunities and possibly reduce allergies later in life.

    Most of the time kids who are angling for a pet have a pretty good list of reasons why this is a good idea. And for the most part, the kids are probably right about the benefits (It’s the drawbacks, listed next, that they might skip over).

  • 02 of 05

    The Potential Pitfalls of Pet Ownership

    Pet ptoblems
    • Allergies - While preventing allergies can be an upside to pets, if someone in the house already has pet allergies, some pets can be a problem. However, pet ownership is not limited to simply dogs, cats, and other allergen-producing animals.
    • Cost - There is the initial outlay of money for the pet and its needs, but then there is the ongoing cost. This continuing cost should be factored in, particularly if a grandparent or someone else outside the household gives the pet as a gift.
    • Time/Commitment - Pets add another layer to work to a family’s already busy life. And they can live for a long time, perhaps longer than your child will live in the household.
    • Disruptions to Family Life - There is always the risk that the pet becomes a behavioral problem. And though often these issues are preventable, through training or a good routine of pet care, once they occur they can be difficult to fix.
  • 03 of 05

    Understanding the Commitment

    Kids and pets

    Before you plunge into pet ownership, be sure you know what you are getting into. Do research about the pet you are interested in or, better yet, have your child do research (which you verify).  

    When you make the decision to own a pet, be sure that you know its lifespan, potential health issues, exercise and grooming needs, and the costs of food, habitat, supplies and veterinary care. Then, reflect on this in the light of your family’s life. Do you have resources and time to provide this care? If not, you may not want to give up on pet ownership but adjust your focus to a different pet.

    After you have delved into what this commitment will mean practically, consider what this commitment models for your child. It can be a beautiful way for your child to build a sense of faithfulness and duty to others to others. However, if you make then break this commitment, what does that model? 

  • 04 of 05

    Getting the Timing Right

    Family pet

    To be sure that this commitment is right, consider the timing carefully.  This means thinking about both your child's age and the lifespan of the pet. If you get a kitten for your teenager, you may be the one seeing the cat through its old age. On the other hand, teens or tweens can be caregivers in a way toddlers cannot. 

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Choosing Your Pet

    Guinea pigs and kids

    Now you’ve weighed the pros and cons of pet ownership and looked at the commitment, costs, and timing in light of your family’s life. Read on if you are ready for a pet! Whether you go the traditional route of a dog or cat or choose an exotic pet for your child, here are some thoughts about which pet might be right for your family.

    Dogs and cats - While many people have a distinct preference for one of these animals, they are actually pretty similar in terms of how they integrate into family life. They both have fairly long lifespans (10-20 years), give and need affection, and require ​daily, hands-on attention. Their cost, exercise and grooming needs, and the likelihood of causing allergies vary between them and among breeds.​

    Rodents - Hamsters, gerbils, rats and guinea pigs can be good starter pets because the length of the commitment is shorter, like their lifespans (2 to 7 years).  Unlike dogs and cats, they do not roam the house. Their daily needs of feeding and watering are minimal, but they do require affection and regular cleaning of their habitats. The initial cost of the habitat may be high, but ongoing costs are not.

    Birds - Similar to rodents, birds will usually be contained within a habitat, but they differ in lifespans. Macaws can live up to 100 years, while even a parakeet might live 15-18 years. Birds vary significantly in their need and desire to interact with children, so choose the best bird species for your family.  

    Reptiles - Like birds, some reptiles have lifespans measured in decades. Their feeding needs can be more complicated and expensive. And though they generally don't give affection like mammals or birds, many people have deep affinities for these ancient creatures. 

    Fish - Yes, fish are not particularly affectionate, but they will teach your child responsibility while providing beauty and wonder. And fish can be scaled to your level of commitment--a goldfish in a bowl or a tropical aquarium.