It’s natural. Youngsters love pets and pets love youngsters. On the surface the reason appears simple enough: young children enjoy a living, breathing playmate of their own—one that’s just about their size and always ready to play.
Pets as Non-demanding Companions
Pets offer children the one luxury they often don’t receive, the opportunity to be part of a non-demanding relationship. During a preschooler’s developmental years, there are pressures to behave in socially acceptable ways, pressures to learn fundamental skills, and pressures to learn how to relate to adult caregivers and to other children. But the pet is constant, offering love and physical closeness—asking for nothing and demanding nothing in return—no matter how stressful the day. Pets become a good friend that youngsters can count on, can tell their troubles to, share their joys, or invite into their imaginations.
Pets Make Good Teachers
Pets are also an invaluable teaching tool. Pets teach responsibility—that there are obligations when you become involved in caring for another living thing. Children learn that other creatures have needs, feelings, and rights, lessons that many preschoolers carry into their adult lives.
Pets may also teach our children about death. The passing of a pet is often a child’s first experience with death and it may help prepare the child for the loss of family members. Parents who take seriously the death of a pet take advantage of an invaluable experience in preparing the young child for the realities of the adult world.
Anticipate Responsibilities Involved in Owning a Pet
Pet behavior problems and concerns should be anticipated in advance and the family must be ready to deal with those problems as they arise. Most new pets will pose a certain number of initial adjustment problems like chewing wood moldings or having “little accidents” on the floor. Adult family members should model a responsible attitude towards dealing with these problems. Parents sometimes give the pet away if the going gets tough. This can be devastating to the child. We want to teach our children about accepting responsibility even when things don”t fall into place right away. But, sadly, the so-called “revolving-door pet mentality” is all too commonplace. Therefore, it is critical that the family agree on owning a pet and that the first choice of pet be the right choice.
The Most Important Reason for Preschoolers to Have Pets
The best advantage to owning a pet is the obvious one—youngsters and pets have fun together. In today”s world of television violence, nuclear concerns, and fears about personal safety, preschoolers tend to be more sophisticated than their parents were in their more innocent, growing-up years. Pets provide the opportunity for children to be children.
Choosing a Pet
Several scientific studies have confirmed the short and long term benefits that pets provide for children, but not enough have addressed the particulars of the child/pet experience, often leaving parents to fend for themselves.
How to Begin
If there is no family pet, the first step is to determine what pet is best suited for the family. Since a pet becomes a member of the family, it is important that your entire family agrees on the pet selection, including your preschooler. Even young children often have their heart set on a certain type of pet and, when possible, this should be accommodated, particularly when the pet is supposed to establish a bond with the child.
Dog, Cat or Alternative Pet?
Dogs are a wonderful choice, offering a variety of sizes and shapes to choose from, and making active playmates for preschoolers. The down side is that if you don”t have a fenced yard, or are unwilling to have a paper trained dog, there is the chore of walking in all weather conditions and at varied times, including late at night. Very small breeds of dogs should be avoided as they are often too fragile to take the wear and tear of young children. On the other hand, large dogs are capable of knocking over preschoolers, although many seem to know to be gentle around the little ones.
Cats are cheaper to keep than most dogs and don”t have to be walked after the 11:00 news; but even so, the litter box will need to be cleaned regularly if the cat is to remain indoors. Some people complain that cats aren”t as affectionate as dogs. I have found that each cat or dog is different and sweeping generalizations don”t hold true. If a cat interests the family, then, by all means, go ahead with your choice.
There are many alternatives to owning a cat or dog. Guinea pigs happen to be one of my favorites. They”re easy to care for, cheap, and can be very affectionate. They tend to be a good compromise pet when you don”t want the added responsibility of a cat or dog. Hamsters, gerbils and mice are also interesting possibilities, but I find them to be a little too small for the preschooler. The hottest trend in pets at the moment is birds. My feeling is that, as with other small pets, birds can be inadvertently hurt by young children and might be better served with the slightly older child. Rabbits are more common today than many people imagine, and also make good pets for the preschooler who”s not too rough. Living in city apartments, rabbits can be trained to use litter boxes and taught to walk on leashes. No more backyard hutches for this pet of the future.
Assess Your Lifestyle
Consider the environment in which you live: rural with lots of room, suburban, or urban with no extra space. The pets should harmonize with the amount of space in which you live. However, big dogs can live in city apartments, provided the family plans to include the dog in a regular exercise program.
Also, latch key pets, like latch key children, need special consideration. Working parents may not have the time to become involved with a pet that requires too much work, and dogs left alone for very long periods of time may not do well when walks are missed. Quality time must be allotted for the pet, no matter how busy the day.
Think about your pocketbook—besides the obvious differences in the cost of feeding between smaller and larger pets, veterinary and kenneling prices vary, and long haired dogs and cats may require professional grooming.
Give Preschoolers Pet Lessons
Don”t take chances. Preschoolers should never be left unsupervised with ANY pet. Since young children are just learning appropriate pet handling techniques, mistakes will happen.
It”s advisable to give pet lessons with a favorite stuffed animal before the pet arrives. Young children frequently drag their stuffed animal toys around by the tail, squeeze them really tight for a hug, or even throw them across a room. Working with children and their stuffed animals as if they were real will help reduce the risk of your preschooler”s mishandling a pet.
What Role Should Your Preschooler Play in the Pet”s Upbringing?
Allow your child to do as much as he or she is physically and emotionally ready to do. Obviously, a young child should not walk a dog. However, basic feeding responsibilities can easily be delegated to your older preschooler, and so can chores like rinsing out the water dish and brushing the pet. Teach your youngster to be gentle, and explain why good grooming habits are as important to Rusty and Fluffy as they are for children.
A very common problem is that pets often respond only to adults, while taking advantage of smaller children. Therefore, young children, with supervision, should even be allowed to participate with the pet”s training, practicing basic commands like sit and stay. This will help the pet respect the authority of the child.