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KIDS AND PETS

"Can I keep him, Mommy? Please?!"

Your eager, four-year old looks up at you while holding a squirming, meowing kitten with a fluffy face and enormous eyes. You see a heart-wrenching combination of hope and sincerity on your daughter's upturned face, and despite your initial inclination to say "No!" you stop to consider your answer. After all, that adorable kitten is tugging on your heartstrings as well.

But is your daughter old enough to have a pet? Is there some magic age that guarantees getting a pet will be a positive experience for all of you? The truth is, the magic is entirely within your grasp.

The benefits of pet ownership are well documented for adults: increased health, longer life, less stress and improved ability to resolve conflicts with co-workers and life partners. But in children, the results are even more miraculous. An increasing number of child development or psychology studies show that children who own animals develop a wide range of life skills that remain with them all their lives.

Studies have shown that children who own a pet tend to have higher self-esteem and lower anxiety than children who don't own pets. Perhaps these results are not so surprising after all. Any animal, especially a dog, is a source of unconditional, unquestioning love. As your child goes through the constant emotional changes that occur from grade school through adolescence, studies are beginning to suggest the love of a pet may provide an emotional safe harbor.

Compassion, tolerance, respect for others, responsibility and appropriate social behavior are only a few of the things having a pet can teach a child, according to an increasing number of sources. Taking care of a pet allows a child to be the one to teach and nurture for a change, and to feel responsible for another living thing. Most child development experts will agree that when your child succeeds with a pet, she can be proud of herself. And therein lies the key. When deciding whether to bring a pet into your home, ask yourself whether your child can succeed in caring for that pet.

But don't assume your child can't succeed simply because she can't handle all the responsibilities herself. The consensus among most child psychologists is that helping her to achieve success is up to you. Don't assume that merely because your child isn't ready to do everything for a pet unaided that she isn't a suitable candidate to have a pet of her own.

To discover whether owning a pet is a wise idea, regardless of the age of your child, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you willing to let your child help you research the pet's needs to learn not only what is required to keep the animal alive, but also what it takes to make him happy?
  • Are you financially able to afford the animal, including veterinary visits, quality food and all the necessary equipment involved in ensuring health and happiness?
  • Are you willing to take the responsibility for the animal's primary care yourself and give your child a realistic and achievable task list that will ensure she succeeds in caring for her pet?

Obviously, the older the child, the longer a task list she can handle. A child of four can't be expected to scoop out the litter box every day, but she can tackle a fairly formidable list of tasks. She can, for example:

  • Call her pet at feeding time.
  • Hold the food dish on the counter while you're filling it.
  • Accompany you on walks. (But never let a child of any age walk a dog alone if she is not physically strong enough to do so.)
  • Play with her pet under your careful supervision.
  • Comfort her pet by talking soothingly while he is being groomed or visiting the veterinarian.

This may not seem to be a terribly difficult list from an adult perspective, but that's the beauty of it. It is achievable and achievement breeds success. You can add to this list or subtract from it with simple tasks suited to your individual child and situation. The important thing is to keep the list achievable.

How she treats her pets will have much to do with the example you show her. Studies are showing close parallels between children who abuse animals and the abuse to which they themselves have been subjected. In response, both the SPCA and the Humane Society, along with a growing number of cities across the country, have started programs to help investigate and educate social and childcare workers about the links between animal and child abuse. And there is growing recognition that children who torture or harm animals are more likely to commit violent crimes as they grow up. Because the example you set for your child will have such an enormous impact on her relationship with her pet, it is worthwhile to consider any decision involving a pet very carefully.

Should you say "yes" to that foundling kitten? In almost every instance, the short-term answer should be "no," not necessarily because your child shouldn't have a kitten, but rather because you want to demonstrate to her that pet ownership is a big decision and not one to be taken lightly. Find the kitten a new home with friends or with a rescue organization. Or at the very least, loan her to someone for a while. Explain to your child that the process of getting a pet is full of big decisions that you will need to make together. There are things to learn, preparations to make and supplies to evaluate and purchase before you bring a pet into your life.

Your child will be sad for a while but if you intend to say "yes" eventually, then turn the expectation into a game. Ask her some stumper questions about her desired pet. If she wants to keep a kitten, ask her to explain why cats arch their backs and fluff their tails. Ask her what she should do if her kitty has a hairball. When she can't answer these questions, she will be interested in helping you "discover" the answers. This is the perfect opportunity to get her thinking about how the kitten feels and what he is trying to communicate when he meows.

Very young children aren't capable of thinking of their pets as sentient beings who feel joy and pain, but you can begin to teach understanding immediately. Ask her how she would feel if she were hungry and couldn't ask for food because no one understood her language, or if she needed to use the restroom and no one would pay attention to her. The older the child, the more opportunities you will have for using a new pet to reinforce cognitive and coping skills, and to establish empathic abilities that will serve your child for a lifetime.

But just as a pet will contribute to the welfare of your child, it is your responsibility to ensure the welfare of the pet. Young children do not always understand the pain they inflict. And though a cat can leap out of harm's way, a dog has more difficulty in escaping fingers that play too rough. Whatever type of pet you're choosing, ensure your child will be able to understand and offer gentle treatment.

It is also your responsibility to teach your child appropriate behaviors with the pet, such as how to discipline the animal without physically harming him. The general guideline is to never allow your child to do anything to any pet that you would not allow her to do to another child. According to the National Association for Humane and Environmental Education, if a child becomes abusive to a pet, whether the abuse is intentional or not, the parent needs to speak to her about how that makes the animal feel.

With proper preparation and forethought, pets are a healthy, positive addition to any family. And the rewards are especially strong for children. By understanding the decision-making process required, you can help to resist impulse acquisitions and spur-of-the-moment adoptions that will lead to unhappiness for both the pet and the household. Instead, through teaching your child responsible pet ownership, you will allow her to develop a relationship that will reward her throughout her life.

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