Dogs, cats and other pets seem like a natural part of childhood for many parents. Many families choose to add a pet to their families when children are a little older and can be part of the care taking necessary in having an animal. However, many parents also make a mistake when they add pets to the family. Too often parents adopt a dog, cat, rodent or other animals as the child’s pet and tell the child that she will have sole responsibility for the care taking of the new creature.
This is not fair to the child and it is certainly not fair to the animal. Children are not able to take on the responsibility of being the sole caretaker for another living being. While pets do teach children about responsibility, parents must oversee a child’s care taking responsibilities and be prepared to do the child’s care taking chores should the child fail.
In many instances, the desire to teach responsibility through pet ownership will be learned by parents modeling proper care taking for a dog, cat or other animal rather than having the child be the sole individual responsible for pet care.
How much responsibility a child has for a pet should be determined by the individual child and also with consideration of the child’s age. For example, in most instances, a child younger than age 5 should never be left alone with a pet. It is unsafe for the child and unsafe for the pet. Even the best-behaved child may exhibit anger, aggression or take some other action that frightens or angers the pet.
If a pet is added to the family when children are old enough to be part of the process, have a family discussion before adoption and let the child be part of deciding what type pet to get. Discuss as a family who will be responsible for what aspects of pet care.
When the new pet arrives, show the child how to do his assigned care taking chores. Show him what tools he will need, such as scooper and plastic bag, if he is responsible for keeping the litter box clean. Agree upon a schedule of how often and at what time of day the chores will be done.
Monitor the child’s care taking carefully. Even if everything goes great for the first few days or weeks, don’t get lax in making sure the chores are completed. While your daughter may have been eager to ensure the new puppy’s bowl was filled when you brought him home in September, by Christmas break she may not be so enthusiastic about the responsibility.
In instances that involve food, water and shelter for the pet, check to make sure children have done their chores each day. It is unfair for the pet to suffer — or worse, become sick or die — because a child was unable to handle the responsibilities of care taking.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Pet Hooligans: Teaching Children How to Care for Their Pets