Kids Caring for Pets: Fantasy or Reality?

If only I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard, “We really want a pet, but are waiting until our child is old enough to care for it.” And countless times I’ve listened to a client explain that the youngster in the room with us will be the one taking care of the puppy I am examining. I bite my tongue so as not to respond, “Yeah, right. Good luck with that house training!” Instead, I find a more tactful way to explain what the family is in store for.

My sentiments about children caring for pets are derived from 32 years as a practicing veterinarian and 29 years of mommyhood (rarely if ever did my three youngsters spend an animal-less moment). I believe that children and animals are a fabulous combination, beginning well before the age when a child can significantly contribute to caring for a pet. There is plenty of data documenting pet-associated benefits on child development. Attachment to a pet promotes positive self-esteem and is related to healthy emotional functioning. Not only do pets favorably influence social development, but cognitive development as well. Postponing this relationship until children are mature enough to responsibly contribute to the animal’s care means missing out on several years of a really good thing.

How old is old enough?

Yes, most kids can contribute to an animal’s care from a very young age, but it is naïve to believe that they can successfully and consistently provide what pets need for their physical and emotional wellbeing. Younger children are simply not capable and older kids often lack the focus, time, and/or motivation to reliably provide care day in and day out. Heck, successfully housetraining and teaching manners to a new pup are challenging propositions for most grownups!

Children may believe they are responsible and capable enough to fully care for a pet, particularly when they are in what I refer to as the “fantasy phase,” thinking about how fabulous the experience will be. When the “reality phase” kicks in, an adult must be willing and able to provide the necessary backup. Regardless of the age of the youngster who is helping care for a pet, adult supervision is required, same as for most any other activity the child engages in (Internet use, homework, social activities, etc.). In this case, an animal’s wellbeing depends on it.

Whose pet is it anyway?

The intention may be that a newly adopted animal becomes the child’s best friend, and that this relationship will nurture a greater sense of responsibility in terms of the child caring for pet. The animal often has a differing opinion, bonding more strongly with someone else in the household and causing the child to lose interest.  Exactly who his or her favorite human will be is anyone’s guess. I encourage families to avoid setting themselves up for disappointment. A newly adopted animal (referring primarily to dogs and cats here) should be considered a “family pet”. Ideally, the animal enjoys and is enjoyed (and cared for) by everyone in the household.

The bottom line

Care for a pet requires lots of adult involvement. For this reason, pets are simply not a good fit for every family. If you are feeling ready for a family pet and understand that much if not all of its care will rest on your shoulders, I encourage you to go for it. Kids and animals are a fabulous combination in well supervised situations. Watching them interact provides profound gratification, regardless of how much care the child is capable of providing.

Do you agree with these sentiments or has your experience taught you otherwise?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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11 Responses to “Kids Caring for Pets: Fantasy or Reality?”

  1. Dawn says:

    I agree in some things that each person had said in their comments,actually mostly agree. Of course I think it could be fantasy or reality. I don’t think I know a kid that doesn’t think puppies/kittens are cute & I believe the same thing, of course their cute! But, in reality, these puppies/kittens DO grow up & that is where I believe the kiddies lose interest. All kids are different, sure they can feed them, love them, clean up after them, etc., BUT they cannot go to the store to buy their dogs food, (for the younger generation) or willing to take responsibility for their pets well being. (as far as needing medical attention or preventative measures) that is where the adult comes into play. Alot of times adults stop caring for the dog too & something comes up & where they don’t know what do with the dog & just dump them. A good tip for owning/adopting an animal is that they are FOREVER animals. And before they adopt, I think they need to have a complete backup plan, in case something does come up & they feel the need to dump them. Like if the owner gets sick, a hurricane,no funds to get dog food or whatever their “excuse” may be their needs to be a concrete plan set before adopting, otherwise it’s plain & simple, Don’t adopt an animal if you have no plan of a action to take & dumping them back where they were adopted from! It mentally takes a toll on the animal & can cause behavioral problems such one being trust issues, which can open a whole other variety of problems. I absolutely encourage adopting, NOT BUYING, & people have to sit down with the whole family & discuss the “What If’s” & have a plan in place, it’s that easy.
    Sorry, I advocate for adopt DONT shop & advocate for the most misunderstood breed in the world, the pitbull/pit mixes & all other “bull” breeds & mixes & I kind of got caught up in the moment.
    Sincerely, Dawn Gordon-Ballesteros ????

  2. Susan Robinson says:

    I love it when breeders insist that the family come not once, but twice, to see adult dogs, play with puppies and talk about responsibilities, all together. Not everyone is lucky enough to have that information about how their family will interact with a pet, and how the pet will look and act as an adult dog. I so agree with you that kids can “grow into” their pets, with some small responsibilities and more as they mature. Parenting will include guiding your child in caring for this other creature. This might very well be how they learn to care for their own families! Thanks for a thought provoking article.

  3. Susan Williams says:

    I so agree with the caveat that some adults will whine for an animal and not take care of it as well. Children rarely have the ability to completely care for, train, and provide protection for a companion animal. Having adopted a dog who was neglected when the 17 year old child failed to care for him, I’m for making everyone sign a care and responsibility contract before kids or pets enter a household. But then I might be a curmudgeon.

  4. Thank you for another fabulous blog–I agree with your sentiments completely! I know that growing up with pets as part of the family (and helping to care for them) enriched my daughter’s life and taught her empathy and self-sacrifice, just as it did for me. But caring for any pet is a big responsibility for a child, and I firmly believe that a parent should be ultimately responsible for ensuring proper care.

  5. Greg says:

    Amy is right – it depends on the individual child. Age six seems to be the cutoff although I’ve seen some mighty talented 4-5 year olds. I plan on hiring these kids before they become my competition! That being said, in all my years of training people to train their dogs I’ve seen maybe one child in a hundred that is responsibly mature enough to take care of dog all on his/her own. For the rest, I help the parents set up an incentive program for their children. Hey, +R works on humans just as well as it works on dogs! Get a white board. Every time the child fulfills an assigned responsibility, the parents put a checkmark on the board. When the child earns x amount of checkmarks, the child gets a coveted reward. Twice as many checkmarks earns a better prize. Be creative.

  6. diane head says:

    Hi Dr. Nancy,
    I completely agree with you. When I was doing dog rescue work up in Northern California and people would apply to us for a dog I always cringed to hear that the family felt the dog would be a great way to teach their kids about responsibility. I had the “This should be a FAMILY pet” conversation MANY times. I really hope people are listening to you since I was never really sure that they ever heard me!

  7. Suzanne Brown says:

    Yes and no. Obviously, a child is in school for a great part of the day and someone will have to care for the pet during that time, especially if it’s a dog.

    When my children were little, we lived in a neighborhood with many large families. I remember one neighbor saying about a toy, “If it’s everyones, it’s no ones”. I came to understand this – “why do I have to pick up, it’s Sally’s, too!”.

    We had cats when my children were born – they were family pets. Each child had a dog while growing up. They did do the feeding, and my elder child worked every morning before breakfast, training that puppy. Both de-pooped the yard. The dogs were very much bonded to each child.

    Now my grandsons each have a cat. There is no question about whose cat is whose, with the exception that their father (who is home all day) is the “cat charmer” and ALL cats adore him. But the cats sleep with their respective boy for most of the night. And the boys do feed them and change the litter box.

  8. Dr. Nancy,

    I wholeheartedly agree with every word. With 35 years of training dogs and their owners privately in their home and raising two wonder and very responsible children, they are kids and we need to allow them to be kids.

    The adult/s in the family are the ones responsible for caring for any pet while teaching/parenting skills are modeled by kids.

    The stress created in a home where parents have expectations of children caring for dogs causes tension in human relationships which can often lead to the demise of the dog in myriad of ways. Dogs living in stressful environments often manifest behaviors such as, anxiety, hyperactivity,being destructive, aggression and more.

    Adding a dog to our lives can me the most joyful experience a family can share. I fear many dogs end up living outside or worse getting sent to shelters and euthanized b/c of this fantasy.

    Thank you Dr. N for this very necessary and important conversation.

    ~jill
    aka SheWhisperer

  9. Judi says:

    My parents had one dog in a 51-year marriage. That was the dog they bought me when I was 13 years old. I was responsible for the majority of dog care, although my mom was a stay-at-home mom at the time so did the daytime housebreaking. I fed him, walked him, cleaned the yard, trained him (based on my understanding of Blanche Saunders’ books). After the puppy’s first morning in our house (my father walked into the kitchen in bare feet, no lights on, and the puppy had escaped his cardboard box….), I also plugged in the coffee on my way to take the puppy out first thing in the morning. This continued when I was in high school, even when I was on an afterschool sports team.

    It was do-able. Had my parents not been willing to keep him when I went to college I would have needed to make some different choices, but they did keep him for the rest of his life.

  10. Amy says:

    It depends on the kid. Some kids are naturally nurturing. My brother took very good care of his goldfish and later became an excellent parent and pet owner. I was the one who cared for the dogs, and when I left for college my mother took one to the pound and sent the other to live with a friend who had a farm. (I still haven’t forgiven her for that)

    So I would ask: if your child goes away to college and the pet is still alive, who cares for the pet then?

    and perhaps a gentle reminder that children are not of age to comply with laws governing animal abuse and neglect, so if they don’t take care of the dog the parents have to either step in or go to jail.

  11. Barbara says:

    This thinking seems so bizarre. I grew up in a household with my grandparents, both born around 1900 and grew up on farms. Animals and kids were not such a drama! You had kids. You had animals. You took care of your animals and they took care of you. The kids learned accordingly, with animal chores added in as the kids were ready.