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When Your Child Wants a Pet

Before you give into your kids' pleas for a pet, there are a few things to consider.

As children, my sisters and I had always wanted a pet. What we got were three guppies in a fishbowl (one for each of us, I suppose). When those died, we “graduated” to guppies in an outdoor pond, but that was the extent of it. 

According to my father, we never got to move up the food chain because my grandmother, who lived with us, was opposed to any real pets. Since my grandmother only spoke Chinese and I spoke almost none, I could not verify this allegation, which I thought was pretty unfair.

Thus, when my children begged for a pet, I empathized…at least part of me did. The rest of me, having never really had to care for a pet, quaked at the thought of having to keep another living being alive. I felt I had pretty much hit my limit with two kids. 

First, I tried to squelch their carving with a Zhuzhu Pet (a toy hamster that squeaks, moves and responds to the “owner’s” actions). The kids enjoyed it, as did I, although for different reasons—mine primarily being that there was no poop or hair involved. 

However, their satisfaction was short-lived. When a close friend won a feeder fish at the carnival (thanks a lot, Oak Tree Festival), the kids begged for one too.  This time, I relented. I even magnanimously threw in an African dwarf frog. Before I knew it, my daughter was begging for a hamster. After much debate, I gave in when we found a free one with a cage on Freecycle. Of course, as soon as she received it, my son asked for a puppy.

Clearly, this could easily spiral into a residential petting zoo situation. For those of you who have not yet hopped onto this slippery slope, I thought I should warn you of a few things I have discovered on the way downhill.

Know your limitations

There are several important things to consider before diving into the world of pet ownership, such as the things listed in this article. Those who have owned pets their entire life or prior to having children would do well with pets. Personally, I knew that owning a pet prior to this year would have put me over the edge. Each person’s limitations will differ, but take them seriously because an animal’s life and wellbeing is on the line.

It is also important to know your child’s limitations and to consider how responsible they are in other arenas. Age is definitely a factor, although not the only one. Discuss what is involved in providing for a pet and clearly state what responsibilities are required. More importantly, discuss the consequences for failing to properly care for the pet and at what point the pet may have to go to a new home if it is being neglected or endangered. 

Start small

Most experts will recommend starting with something small, such as fish.  This is an excellent way to test out your child’s caretaking abilities, as well as to begin teaching them such responsibilities.

Although exotic pets may seem appealing, definitely try something more basic before exploring owning one. This should give you time to research what special needs or permits may be required. Often times, there is an extremely good reason why certain pets are exotic—they do not really make good pets.

Do your homework 

Before deciding on a particular animal, research its needs and requirements. My husband and I decided in our first year of marriage that we wanted to adopt a pair of birds. I wanted something prettier than parakeets but lovebirds were too noisy, so we ended up with zebra finches, which made a cute beeping sound. 

However, I was frustrated when they did not seem to like being held.  Whenever I tried, the finch laid in my hand like it was dead.  It turns out, they are not intended to be handled like parakeets and lovebirds and cannot be trained as such. The poor things were probably going into shock each time I held them. 

Another thing that a little research would have revealed is that zebra finches are voracious breeders. Not only that, but I learned the hard way that there is probably nothing more disgusting than the amount of waste produced by a nest full of baby finches.

Make sure to involve your child in the research process. For example, my daughter knew she wanted a hamster, not a guinea pig, because she deduced that a hamster would have smaller poop, which she considered a plus. However, she discovered in her research that hamsters are nocturnal.  She had to make the decision which feature was more important to her. 

Be prepared to be inconvenienced

The first time we had a hamster jailbreak, it was somewhat entertaining.  The second time, not so much, partly because it happened at midnight and I had to stay up to wait for her to return to her baited cage and partly because she immediately proceeded to repeat the feat about 30 minutes later, which meant I got to bed around 2:30 a.m.

There is no doubt about it, caring for a pet is work. However, if you research and select your pet carefully and judiciously gauge when your child is ready to care for it, it can be rewarding.  You may even discover that your pet becomes a beloved part of the family!

Jim Miller September 30, 2011 at 05:25 AM
This is why we have a hamster instead of a pony.

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