Wanting and subsequently begging for a pet is somewhat of a childhood rite of passage. Most kids, at some point, want a dog, cat, hamster, rabbit, gold fish, or all of the above. For parents who love having a houseful of animals, adding a third cat or another creature-filled tank may be no big deal, but if pets just aren’t your thing, the decision can be a confusing and overwhelming one. So I talked to a veterinary to ask: What should parents keep in mind when shopping for their child’s first pet? Here’s what she said.
Do not impulse buy
Did you know mice can really stink up a room after a while? Or that bearded dragons, while often considered a “starter” reptile, can move surprisingly fast and unexpectedly, and should not be handled by young children? A box turtle can be a great pet (if properly cared for!), but if you let it roam and you also have a dog? The dog might try to eat it.
Some fish, like betta fish, are good to chill alone in a small, non-filtered tank (just don’t enclose them with other betta fish, lest they fight and injure or kill each other). Other fish require a much more specific set up by way of filters and temperature regulation.
Before you adopt or purchase any pet, consider the space in which you live, the amount of time required to train and care for it, how it might interact with children or other pets in the home, its average lifespan, and its diet.
For example, “some reptiles require fresh food every day,” says Dr. Valerie Patton, a veterinarian in Sacramento. “Some reptiles require not only fresh food, but live food. I had to go get crickets every day for one [of my own].”
So it’s best to know what you’re getting into before you fall in love with and commit to, say, a chinchilla.
Consider implementing this cat vs. kitten rule
Sometimes the smartest, most helpful rules are created out of necessity, such as when your young child is begging you for a cute, fuzzy kitten and you are trying to weigh what they are capable of, what you have time for, and how much constant supervision you will be able to provide. That’s how it came to be that when Patton’s young twin daughters each wanted their own kitten as a pet, she devised a rule on the spot.
“I looked at these children—I think they were five [years old]—and I was like, there’s no way a kitten isn’t going to be smothered to death,” she says. “So I made this rule in my head real quick, and it’s a rule I tell a lot of parents: You can have a cat when you’re five. But if you want a kitten, you have to wait until you’re seven years old.”
Of course, all kids are different and are ready for different responsibilities at different ages—and she’s not sure exactly how she landed on seven years old, specifically, for being able to carefully handle a kitten. But in her decades as a vet, she says she has seen it to be true time and again with her clients.
“I can talk to a seven-year old and explain to them a little bit [about caring for the kitten],” she says, “and they have span attention spans to watch videos about things like that.”
The rule also gives kids a bit of ownership in the decision-making; in Patton’s daughters’ case, one decided to adopt an older cat right away and the other wanted a kitten badly enough that she opted to wait until age seven.
Factor in the benefits
Kids can learn many lessons from caring for their first pet—even before they actually get it. There is the patience required to wait until you finally agree they are old and mature enough to care for another creature. There is perseverance if you’ve attached some condition to pet ownership, such as saving up for the adoption fee or to purchase some of the equipment. They’re even honing those leadership skills as they sit you down for a presentation titled, “Why I Am Ready to Train a Puppy.”
And once they are actually caring for a pet, they are strengthening their empathy muscles through the experience of caring for another living thing day after day. But Patton’s favorite benefit that kids can receive from a pet: The emotional support an animal can provide.
“Kids are dealing with so much,” Patton said. “Kids have emotional upsets that don’t always make sense to us, but they’ve got that [animal] that just gives them love.”
That’s one reason why Patton thinks cats make such great pets for many kids—cats can respond to and show affection, and they can curl up and snuggle or sleep with kids at night.
Or maybe you have a child who, during this time of social isolation, could really use a more active companion—a dog they can train to play fetch and take on walks around the neighborhood. Consider the types of benefits and experiences that different pets can provide, and factor those into your decision, too.
Final words of wisdom
Patton’s last piece of advice is simple but adamant: Do not get a child a bird.
“You don’t want a bird for children,” she says. “They are messy and they are delicate.”
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