During my junior year of college, my roommate brought home a kitten, which I named Tess, after the title character of the 1979 Roman Polanski movie. Although I never had a pet before, I attempted to adapt to the new little creature cohabiting with me — moving swiftly across my furniture, settling on top of any open book I was reading, and shredding entire rolls of paper towels when she felt she had been left home alone for too long.
After two months, my roommate decided that Tess was not worth half the cost of her food and kitty litter and wanted to get rid of her.
But it was too late for me. I already loved her. So I kept the kitten — and dumped the roommate.
Later, I married a dog person. Years after Tess was gone, and our nuclear family seemed complete, he suggested we get a dog, like his family had done when he was growing up. I was not about to become mother to a canine that was large enough for a toddler to ride on (complete with doggie smell), but when my then 6-year-old daughter asked for a dog that would “stay a puppy,” my husband and I compromised, and we got a miniature dachshund.
Milton has always been a source of unbridled joy for our family. He has a special relationship with my children — who literally grew up with him, and my daughter has always referred to him as her “younger brother.”
Despite some initial trepidation, I was in favor of introducing the furry bundle of joy into our family. I understood that bringing home a pet was not exactly like bringing home a cuddly stuffed animal.
Veterinarian Ann Hirschegger equates adopting a pet with adding “an additional child, especially [if you bring home] a puppy.”
So, if you’re considering adding a pet to your family, there are several factors to consider.
If you’re considering a new pet, acclimate your children to the idea of being around and caring for animals. Dr. Susan Bartell, a family psychologist, suggests pet sitting for a friend before introducing your new addition into your home. I also suggest encouraging your children to volunteer at a local pet shelter. (But first, check to see if your children meet the age requirement, and make sure you are comfortable with the extent of the commitment required.)
Each breed or type of pet will need to be handled in a certain way. Since our dachshund was small and needed to be lifted and carried in a particular manner, we taught our children to handle him carefully. Children also have to be taught that certain foods, like chocolate, can be dangerous to dogs. Different breeds will have various temperaments and needs, so it will involve some research in advance.
It seems simple and straightforward, but it is not. I recommend that families unfamiliar with dog handling be sure to learn how to best manage a new dog, whether by hiring a private trainer, reading books, or researching online. We hired a dog trainer to help us understand how to manage Milton.
Dogs are pack animals, so when they are first brought into a new home, they need to understand their position in the family hierarchy. They need to know that they are not higher in importance than even their smallest human counterpart, because if this order is not established, a seemingly sweet and tame dog could nip a child.
Milton’s trainer also warned against allowing a dog to walk his owner. I see dogs leading their owners around my neighborhood all the time. To set the tone, the dog should always enter the house after the humans.
Having a pet is a big responsibility, and, as such, the duties should be carried out by the whole family. Expecting a child to shoulder the entire burden of pet ownership is unfair and unreasonable, warns Bartell.
“Kids are just not responsible enough, [however] well-intentioned,” agrees Hirschegger.
Still, with some guidance, children who are allowed to care for pets are given an early opportunity to contribute to the family.
Beware, though, that even in families in which parents are diligent about children regularly helping to care for a pet, kids’ time is much more limited by the time they reach middle school. Their free time is quickly consumed with homework, sports, and after-school activities.
Caring for a dog or cat can become expensive. In addition to the cost of food, kitty litter, or dog licensing fees, there are bills for ongoing veterinary care, and the possibility of great expense if the animal becomes ill. Worm, flea, and other medications will also need to be purchased and administered.
Keep in mind that most animals need to be groomed and bathed, whether that involves buying your own supplies to routinely upkeep your pet, or paying a professional groomer to do the job. Teeth and nails also need to be maintained. Plus, dogs need to be boarded when a family goes on vacation. If you are lucky enough to have a friend who will take care of your dog for free, you can avoid the boarding fee, which can run from $20 per day in a local kennel to $30 per day for the neighborhood dogsitter, to $80 per night for the suite in Barkingham Palace in Port Washington. Boarding, for dogs with medical issues, starts at $180 per night. Another option is to stay at a pet-friendly hotel, but there can be extra fees and some pets do not travel well.
Cats¬ — and some breeds of dogs — are a little less work when it comes to grooming, as they are mostly self-cleaning, much like Milton and my kitchen oven.
However, even with the expense and responsibility, most pet owners will tell you the experience is worth it and that their pet is a family member.
Pets and kids
Having a pet can be a great experience for children. A pet can provide an only child with additional companionship, or, as in my family, can provide a child with someone younger to boss around.
Pets also help children grow emotionally. For example, a child learns tenderness when she cares for a small pet, says Dr. Nina Malik, a veterinarian. She says a child also learns about experiencing the different stages of life through her pet, as the animals often join families as kittens or puppies, and share their middle and golden years with the same family.
“Children learn how to attach, how to love, and to lose,” Malik explained to me.
This could prepare the child for later in life, when she may have to cope with the loss of a family member, or a friend who moves away.
Also, a 2002 article in the Journal of American Medicine referenced a study that showed babies who live in a home with two or more pets may be less likely to develop allergies to pets.
There is, of course, always the possibility of sibling rivalry. A child can get jealous when her parents need to devote time to caring for an animal, or, more often, a pet could have a hard time adjusting to the introduction of a new baby.
Many people believe that pets can offer their owners unconditional love.
In his book, “Dogs Never Lie About Love,” psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson adamantly asserts that dogs indeed feel love. Stanley Coren takes a somewhat different approach in his book, “How Dogs Think,” advocating what he calls “classical conditioning,” by way of hand-feeding a dog to teach him love.
Jan Fennell, author of “The Dog Listener,” assured me via e-mail that dogs merely have a natural loyalty to their pack members for survival. “[Dogs] are loyal to those they survive alongside,” explained Fennell. “This shouldn’t be interpreted as devotion.”
While some veterinarians deny that dogs can experience such a human emotion, I tend to side with Masson. In his book,” he captures the indescribable sense of elation a dog exhibits whenever his favorite human appears.
Despite their stubborn independent streak, I believe cats experience love, too. They may be more subtle, but they also let their owners know when they are ready for company.
A child’s dog can undoubtedly behave like president of her fan club. Who wouldn’t want a creature that is always available and appears to think you are the greatest all the time?
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When you decide to make an addition to your family, make sure that this is truly what you want. It can be difficult for a child if her parents adopt a pet, and then decide to give the pet away because the expense is too great, much like my college roommate. Bartell points out that a child may get attached to a pet more quickly than an adult, and if parents hastily rush to adopt and then change their minds, the child may experience a rollercoaster of emotions.
I am in no way trying to discourage you from adopting a cute, furry friend for your tyke; but I am recommending that you go in with your eyes open. Pets are accepting of their owners, warts and all, and this can be reassuring, even to a socially well-adjusted kid.
To help select the right pet for your family visit petfinder.com.
Copyright 2011 by Risa C. Doherty