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  • By Lisa Jevens

Children can't care for pets alone

If you are about to cave in to your child’s pleas for a pet, you are on the precipice of an extremely important and exciting decision for your entire family — and the animal in question. You may wonder if your child is truly ready to take care of a pet.

While pet ownership can provide wonderful benefits for children, the fact is that shelters are full of pets who didn’t make it in households that were unprepared for the reality of meeting an animal’s needs every single day for the rest of its life.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says the key to success with children and pets is realizing up front that adopting a pet can be great for families, but it is a family decision to take on the additional work and expense. The parents are the responsible parties who must model the correct behavior and take the lead in caring for the pet.

Within that context, there are many benefits to pet ownership for children, and many things they can do to help care for a pet.

According to the AACAP, developing positive feelings about pets can contribute to a child's self-esteem and self-confidence. Positive relationships with pets can aid in the development of trusting relationships with others. A good relationship with a pet can also help in developing non-verbal communication, compassion and empathy.

“Learning to take care of somebody is a huge part of being a human being. It teaches love and respect and humility,” says Dr. Rachel Fleissner, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Sanford Health in Fargo, N.D. Fleissner is known for using her own therapy dog to aid in the treatment of her patients.

In addition to responsibility, children and pets can form strong bonds that benefit both of them. Pets can be safe recipients of secrets and private thoughts, and non-judgmental companions.

Having an animal in the family provides a connection to nature, and lessons about life, reproduction, birth, illness, accidents, death and bereavement.

Realistically, children can be expected to help feed, water, play with and clean up after a pet. They can give it affection and attention. But they cannot be expected to do this regularly without reminders, nor know how to train a pet, nor recognize signs of stress in the animal.

The biggest mistake parents make is that they agree to the pet on the condition “the child will take care of it,” says Fleissner. “I don’t believe children of any age have the developmental ability to fully take care of an animal. It’s normal for children to switch from one interest to another very quickly. Teens are no different. Ask yourself, ‘What will happen if they get involved in a new activity or get a boyfriend or girlfriend?’” Fleissner says.

“A dog must be walked every day, even when it is 16 degrees below zero,” Fleissner points out. “You can’t really ask a child to do that.”

The AACAP also emphasizes that choosing the right pet for your family is critical. This is where parental judgment comes in. It is your job as a parent to choose a pet that is right for your family, your home, and your lifestyle, and one that your child can help care for.

Parents should be cautious about having aggressive animals as pets. Exotic and unusual animals may be difficult to care for and should be considered very carefully, the AACAP says.

When would it be best not to add a pet to the household?

“If there is yelling or violence in the home, I recommend no animal,” Fleissner says. “You can never put the animal’s welfare at risk because its people are arguing. The animal can’t protect itself. It deserves the respect that you would give any human being or member of the family.”

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun "From House to Home" section, and on on March 11, 2015.

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