There is something special about a child and a baby animal playing together. It can make the toughest person melt a little inside. I think this is probably why so many parents love the idea of getting their kids a puppy or a kitty or a bunny. Holidays can be especially tempting when it comes to bringing home something soft and furry but don’t ever let the momentum and the cuteness catch you making a rash decision. There are many positives and negatives to owning an animal when there are children involved and we’ll will look at a few of those here.
There are so many great reasons to have a pet and one of the top reasons is that kids seem to be healthier when pets are around. In a 2008 review by Barker and Wolen (published in the Journal of Veterinary Medicine Education), the authors stated that more and more research is conclusively showing that humans, kids and adults alike, receive benefits from pet ownership. These benefits include increased immune system responses to common bacteria, lower levels of asthma and allergies, and lower levels of stress hormones.
Having a pet seems to be the dream of so many children. Why is it? Is it the chance to dress up the dog or the cat and have a playmate? Is it the opportunity to snuggle with and confide in a confidante that will take a secret to the grave? It really is hard to say why pets make us happier, but they do, especially as children when the responsibility associated with owning the pet is very situational. Information in the review mentioned above by Barker and Wolen indicates that more “happy hormones” are produced when people are around pets that are calm and well-behaved.
More Responsible Kids
The older a child gets, the more likely he or she is to benefit from being responsible for a pet. At first it can just be feeding and watering the animal but there are many lessons that can be learned when dealing with a pet. My step-daughter was surprised when I explained to her how much food and vet expenses for the dogs cost us every year. It was a great opportunity to teach her about why we make the decisions we do and how we prioritize our money to have the things we want, like our pets.
“The Pets Were Here First!” Syndrome
I had dogs and cats in my house before I had kids. The decision to have animals in the house was made more because of the joy they brought into my life than the possible benefits to my children. I’ll admit to thinking that the dogs were there first and had a right to be given a chance to “play nice” with the baby. The difference was that I had made a decision prior to bringing the baby home that many pet-owners turned new parents won’t let themselves make: if we sense any problems, the dogs will leave. No second-chances. Period.
That Terrifying Moment
Unfortunately, not enough prior pet owners feel that “baby first” instinct or at least they don’t when push comes to shove. Watching your kids at every moment when dogs are around is critical, even if they are your beloved pet. Ivy was as sweet a dog as you could ever meet. Silky black with a little white spot on her chest, she loved to be petted while resting her head on your lap…but I digress. The dogs (three of them) had their own couch so that they would not sit on our couch. At first there was no real sign of a problem with the dogs and the baby. I kept a careful eye on all of them, especially as the baby started to become mobile and would sit near the dogs.
The terrifying moment came when the baby was climbing up on the dog couch and trying to give Ivy a hug. Ivy would move to the other end of the couch until the baby crawled after her. After a few passes back and forth, Ivy growled. I mean she really growled. It was enough to make me jump up and snatch up the baby before an attack happened. What could we do with sweet Ivy? Segregate her to another part of the house and hope that she just got used to the baby? Hope that as the baby got older and could open doors on her own that she would understand to stay away? No, we did the only thing we could do. We gave Ivy away. The safety of our child was more important to us than the dog.
In the End
The bottom line is that animals are animals and will always have a will of their own, just as our children do. The question becomes whether giving your children the amazing experience of being pet owners is worth the risk of a bite or worse. For us, the answer was yes with the caveat that our instincts would not be ignored. We got rid of one dog for the sake of our children but we still have two dogs peacefully coexisting in our family.
S. B. Barker and A. R. Wolen (2008). The benefits of human-companion animal interaction: a review. J Vet Med Educ. 35(4):487-95.