Pets and Children: A Care Guide

The bond between pet and child can be breathtaking to behold -- unconditional love and tender care at their finest. But there's more to the kid-pet relationship than sentimental moments. Children can tend pets, but they need guidance to do the job right. Here's how to bring out the best and work with the worst when kids and pets live side by side -- or just visit back and forth.

For parents and kids:
General tips for living with pets
Tips for living with dogs and cats
A point to remember when dogs and kids interact
Precautions to take with small pets

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Age Is an Object
The age at which a child can assume the basic responsibility for a pet depends on the animal and the child's maturity level. If a youngster really loves the animal, is willing to care for him, and enjoys him, somewhere around age nine is a good time to start. Some children are ready a year or two earlier, and some are never ready.

The Buck Stops with Mom
Although it boosts a child's self-esteem to call a pet her own and she can certainly take on quite a bit of pet care, a pet is a living thing and a member of the family. Don't leave its well-being up to the kids. Be prepared to nurture the pet -- newt or Newfoundland -- with the best the household has to offer, independent of what the child is able or willing to do.

Let the Kids Choose Their Own Friends
Accept that some children just aren't "animal people." Don't force them to feel guilty that they really don't want to be around the household parakeet or spend hours tending the dog, especially if it's a pet that was adopted when the children were babies or that they never asked for.

Skip the Empty Threats
If you adopted a pet at one child's urging and whining and that child has lost interest, threaten to give the animal away only if you really mean it. Otherwise, you will just provoke guilt and bad feelings and will still end up caring for the animal yourself.

Here's the Goal
Forget lines such as "This is your pet. Don't expect me to feed it (or walk it, or change its litter box)." If you adopted the pet because you thought you'd never need to tend it, you must rearrange your thinking. Adults always have bottom-line responsibility for every member of the family. Better to say "If you aren't going to be able to take care of the cat this week because of football practice, you need to help me work out a schedule of who's going to fill in and how you'll make it up to them." That's a feasible project.

Let Me Walk the Dog!
Establish pet care duties as a privilege, not a grudging chore. "Let" a child walk the dog only after she has proved that she can master the concept by, for example, "walking" a pull toy on a leash regularly for a week or two. Take away a pet care privilege as a consequence of other infractions: "You won't be able to brush Fifi tonight because you haven't finished your homework." Of course, to make the tasks seem alluring, you'll have to do them yourself with a cheery grin.

Duties for Pet Deputies
Although very young children shouldn't be expected to take full responsibility for a pet's care, even the youngest can help to tend pets. For a toddler, helping fill the dog's water bowl or clean the bird's cage is diverting and sets up an attitude of "It's my job to see that the pets are taken care of" that will last a lifetime. If you don't have children in your household, invite a neighbor's child to help out, or a grandchild or other relative.

Give a child who's five to eight years old a regular duty, such as feeding the fish or brushing the cat. Once you've shown the youngster how and supervised him for five to ten days, set up a checklist or calendar so that you can note "job well done" each day. Work toward a small reward for consistent performance.

The Odds Are Good
Surprisingly, the "prize" can work just as well if it's more for the pet than the child. For example, offer to let the child help you pick out a new water bowl for the dog after the youngster has done water detail for 21 days. (Odd numbers of days tickle children, as do unusual dollar amounts. For example, tell your young ones, "We'll spend $1.79 just on treats for Bandit after we've changed his cage three times.")


For parents and kids:
Tips for living with dogs and cats
A point to remember when dogs and kids interact
Precautions to take with small pets

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