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Choosing a Child's First Pet

When choosing a child's first pet, people often think first of small animals such as gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, and chicks. Although small animals can indeed make great pets for responsible, gentle children, they're not the default perfect pet for all kids.

If you're looking for a child's first pet, consider that small animals:

  • Don't bond with children in the same way that dogs or even cats do.
  • Are delicate. If a child wants to poke, prod, and carry around — or even drop — a small pet, tragedy can result.
    Many small animals have been severely injured or killed unintentionally by the careless or clumsy handling of a small child, and many small children have been bitten and scratched by small animals trying to defend themselves. There is no quicker way to turn a child off of pet ownership like a sharp bite from a hamster or a sound scratching from a rabbit scrambling for safety.
  • Aren't more disposable than dogs or cats. However, many people see small animals that way, which is why so many are abandoned. Please don't adopt a small animal to test a child's readiness for a pet and then abandon the animal (or worse, allow it to perish) just to prove the child isn't ready for pet ownership.

On the other hand, kids who are responsible and mature enough to understand how to handle a small animal with safety and care actually can get a great deal of enjoyment and even education from a small pet animal.

When deciding whether your child can be mature and responsible enough to handle and help care for a small animal, consider the following:

  • Age: Any child can live with a small animal, but children younger than 7 may not be able to physically handle a small animal. Let them look but not touch, unless you're holding the animal and allowing the child to pet it while you maintain control.
  • Maturity level: Is your child a grown-up in miniature? Does your child tend to lose control, have tantrums, or try daredevil stunts? Is your child coordinated or prone to dropping things or losing track of what he's doing? Evaluate whether your child makes smart decisions on her own, or whether she has a good sense of what is safe for herself and others. Be realistic about your child's maturity level before giving him or her that little gerbil or bunny as a pet.
  • Responsible nature: Does your child play quietly, act calmly, and have empathy for small creatures? If so, your child may be a good match for a small animal. But if he isn't responsible for his own actions yet, is likely to take a small animal out without asking, or may just want to see what happens if she pushes the guinea pig down the driveway on a skateboard, please spare the poor creature and wait until the child is willing and able to maintain self-control and follow the rules.

Any pet in any household is the responsibility of the adult, and the adult must be the ultimate caretaker. Children can learn plenty about responsibility by taking care of a small animal, but if they forget to clean the cage or change the water, the adult must be vigilant enough to intervene and make sure these important jobs are accomplished, one way or another.

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