Choosing Your Child’s First Pet

According to the statistics compiled by the American Veterinary Medical Association, dogs are the most popular American companion animal, followed closely by cats, then birds and horses. Among the exotic or cage animals (which include fish, ferrets, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, turtles, snakes and lizards) aquarium fish are chosen three times more often than their closest competitor, rabbits, and surpass other exotics by a factor of ten. Gerbils were the least popular.

At some point in their young lives, most children will request a pet of their own. Choosing the proper one is an important decision as it will contribute to the foundation of the child’s future as a responsible pet owner. Most experts agree that selecting the “right pet” should be a family decision. It should be a balance between the child’s attainment of an optimum pet-ownership experience and a respect of the busy parent’s time, energy and finances to support the venture.

Together, a family should consider lifestyle, expectations, housing, expenses, level of experience as pet owners and whether or not there is a family history of allergies or asthma. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dennis R. Ownby, MD; Christine Cole Johnson, PhD; and Edward L. Peterson, PhD, concluded that “Exposure to two or more dogs or cats in the first year of life may reduce subsequent risk of allergic sensitization to multiple allergens during childhood.” In addition to all other considerations, adults need to remember that the ultimate responsibility for the animal will fall on them.

The safety of both child and pet should be discussed initially among family members and periodic reminders to children depending on their level of understanding. Naturally curious and rambunctious, children sometimes forget to be calm and gentle around animals. Despite the labeling placed on certain species, breeds or genders, any animal can scratch or bite if provoked. Just like humans, animals have their own personalities; an adult would be wise to choose a pet that is naturally mild mannered and easy to handle. Also, the type of pet chosen is not only a function of the child’s age, but their level of maturity and responsibility.