8 points to consider when getting a family pet

How to make the best of that special relationship between children and pets

Never get a pet because your child saw the animal in a movie and wants one. Get everyone involved but keep pet chores age appropriate

The special bond that may develop between a child and his dog will need to be encouraged by taking the new pup (and the child) for puppy socialisation classes

Yes, there is truth in the old saying that pets teach children responsibility, but make sure your child is old enough to understand the responsibility that goes with owning a pet

It’s the responsibility of the parents to make sure their children respect their pets – teach your child how to handle her pets so they do not get hurt or feel uncomfortable

Animals in the home can be a wonderful way for kids to learn valuable life lessons, but they aren’t there to be mistreated or forgotten like a cheap toy. Kids and pets can co-exist peacefully, build a strong bond and have fun together, provided that ground rules are set early on. It’s not only the dog, cat or bird who needs training, your child needs your guidance too.

1. Choose wisely 

Before you rush out and buy the first animal your child asks for, do some in-depth research. Can you afford the animal, his food, vet bills and general care? Do you have time to dedicate to this pet? Young children cannot take on the sole responsibly of pet care. You must be willing to get involved. Never get a pet because your child saw the animal in a movie and wants one. Exotic pets must be carefully researched. Some need very specific care, specialised diets and can live for many years (he may be around long after your child has left for varsity). “If you’re keen on a dog, ask your vet for advice on child-friendly breeds,” says Marianne Louw, mom to Zianté (6) and Simon (2). “Don’t choose a dog because you think the breed is cute or you like it.”

2. Encourage responsibility

Get everyone involved but keep pet chores age appropriate. A three-year-old can easily fill the dog’s water bowl, while older kids can clean the hamster’s cage or bath the dog. Educational psychologist and mother of three, Annemi Scheepers, says that making a set feeding time every day is best, possibly before the family meal. “Even a young child will understand a pet’s needs better if there is no plate of food on the table for the child responsible for today’s feeding,” she says.

3. Learn the ropes   

Teach your child how to care for her pet and what food is appropriate for the animal. Cartoons confuse kids… it’s a world where turtles eat pizza and cats love lasagne. “After the girls got their hamsters, we went to the local library to find children’s books on how to care for them,” says Anthea Stock, mom to Ashleigh (9) and Zoë (5). “The girls enjoyed learning about hamsters and the right way to look after them.” Let your child accompany you to the vet for vaccinations and check-ups or if the pet is ill. Most kids have a natural empathy and love for animals, so nurture this in your child.

4. Make hygiene a priority

Some diseases can pass from animals to humans, so it is important for everyone’s good health that you keep your pets healthy. Follow a good tick and flea and deworming programme and have your pets vaccinated. Teach your child to wash her hands with soap and water after she has played with her pet, cleaned out the bird or hamster’s cage or cleaned up after the puppy. Keep bedding clean.

5. Foster respect

Toddlers need to learn from an early age that pulling and tugging on the puppy or kitten isn’t allowed. Explain to your child that animals feel pain in the same way we do. During puppy’s chewing phase, make sure he has ample chew toys so he doesn’t attack Barbie or Buzz Lightyear. Teach your child the right way to handle his pet. Playgroup teacher and mother of two boys, Sam Owens, says that she taught her son the right way to handle his Bearded Dragons. “If you drop them they can break a leg,” says Sam. “Initially Damien was only allowed to hold them sitting down. He is now teaching his little brother how to stroke them gently and not to pull their tails or squash them.”

6. Set boundaries

Set rules about pet care, responsibility and treatment towards the animal. Consistency is just as important for the dog or cat as it is for your child. If you don’t want your dog on the couch, make sure the kids keep him off as a puppy. If your child suffers with allergies or asthma, don’t let the cat or dog sleep in his bed. Rather give him a dedicated bed in a corner of your room or the study.

7. Pay it forward

Pets need love and the gift of your time just as much as they need food and fresh water. Encourage your child to spend time with her pet every day. Teach the puppy to walk on a leash so you can enjoy family walks together.

8. Build a strong bond     

Puppy socialisation classes will go a long way in helping your dog grow up to be a well-rounded family member. He can be enrolled in puppy classes after his second set of vaccinations. After puppy school your dog can move on to obedience training classes. Why not get your kids involved? Many children enjoy obedience training as an extramural activity. It’s great for fostering a good bond between the dog and child, teaches kids patience and responsibility and helps build good self confidence.

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