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Front Page » July 18, 2002 » Focus on Children » Bring the animal kingdom home by choosing the right pet
Published 4,826 days ago

Bring the animal kingdom home by choosing the right pet

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Contributing writer

Kids and puppies can be a cute combination, but it takes more than just wanting an animal to take care of them properly. For the good of all, pet ownership must be considered carefully, based on the needs and situation of a family.

It's easy to decide you want a pet. Children and adults alike fall in love with dogs, cats, birds, and even mice, In real life, having a pet for a friend can be an enriching and instructive experience for a child.

The following suggestions are offered to help promote positive pet ownership for you and your child.

•Reach a firm decision about whether you and your child actually want to own a pet.

The John Daniels family has a 20 year-old Siamese cat named Abernathy who follows them around the block each night and eagerly chases the family's 10 year old tabby, Edwina. Abernathy looks nearly as young as the day Mr. Daniels bought him. This cat has been part of the family before any of the four children were born, and may be there after one or more of them leave the nest.

While not many animals live as long as Abernathy, pet ownership is a commitment that hopefully lasts several years. Parents can ask themselves if such a commitment fits with their current lifestyle, and also explain to a child that buying a pet means taking responsibility for that animal's lifelong care.

Experts interviewed for this article advise preparing a child in advance for pet ownership rather than presenting him with a pet as a surprise birthday or Christmas present. They add that exotic holiday pets such as rabbits or chickens are often viewed as holiday "novelties" and are later neglected or ignored.

•Read about the pet before you bring it home to your kids.

Jody Hanger, an animal expert, suggests reading a book about any animal you and your child are considering as a pet to see if it is compatible with your family as far as maintenance, necessary accommodations and temperament. For example, she recommends that any family considering a dog should have a fenced yard.

"If there isn't a fence, every time the dog needs to go out, it will have to be taken on a leash, which can become inconvenient. There's also a greater risk of it getting lost or being hit by a car."

One family with four children were of two minds about the pet that would be best for them. The father and two older boys wanted a Dalmatian that would primarily live outdoors while the mother and younger children wanted a Llasa Apso to live in the house. After visiting with every dog in the pet store, their happy solution was to purchase both a Llasa and a Dalmatian at the same time, filling all their family's specifications for a pet.

•Consider maintenance costs and requirements.

All pets, like all living things, require some care and maintenance. The trick is matching the necessary care with a family's lifestyle. A dog that requires lots of exercise may not have his needs met with a family where both parents work and the children are in day care.

"When such a family comes home at the end of the day, there are multiple priorities that need to be taken care of--and the dog's daily walk may get skipped," says Mandy Shapira of The Pet Center. She suggests that two cats--who are by nature more independent and prefer to take care of their own needs--might be a better low-maintenance choice for a busy family.

On the other hand, while reptiles such as lizards, box turtles, iguanas, and boa constrictors, don't require a daily walk, they do need to eat the same day every week and live in cages that are exceptionally clean because they are subject to bacteria in a man-made environment.

"Their diet often includes live food--which makes some mothers squeamish," adds Shapira.

Birds, which are popular with many kids, need basically the same diet as people, without the salt or oils.

"Actually, the less seed they eat, the better, says Shapira, who adds that birds are a good choice for a family who travels frequently, because a bird can be taken in its cage to another place for care, rather than requiring someone to come to the owner's home.

•Medical care accompanies maintenance.

One family fell madly in love with their new red tabby, Tiger--but in the hustle and bustle of daily life, failed to provide the kitten with immunizations. After two short years, Tiger suffered and died from feline leukemia, which immunization would have prevented.

Hanger advises potential pet owners to call various organizations about prices for vaccination, spaying and other medical care, and to understand these costs before purchasing an animal.

Another problem is loss of an animal that gets out or escapes the house. Dr. Martin G. Orr, DVM, recommends that all animals be identified with a collar, tag, or microchip inserted beneath the skin so that they will be readily returned if lost.

Dr. Orr also recommends that an owner frequently conduct hands-on examinations of a pet during play.

"Look down the ear canal, feel the cheeks and gums and in between the toes," he suggests. "The most important thing is to make sure that body functions are predictable and routine. If anything strikes you are unusual, call your vet, who can inform you if a condition is normal."

He says such hands-on examinations will also accustom the pet to being held and examined so that veterinary visits are less disturbing.

Spaying or neutering is also recommended by most animal professionals. Two unaltered breeding cats, plus all their kittens' have a potential posterity of 80,399,780 in ten years. Katharine Brant of the Humane Society points out that for every person that is born, 15 dogs and 45 cats are also born. If each animal were to have a good home, a household of five would have to harbor 10 dogs and 30 cats. With the current pet overpopulation rate, only two animals out of 10 live to adulthood as part of loving, caring homes.

Besides helping to curb pet overpopulation, neutering offers medical benefits that include lower breast cancer rates and less uterine infections in female animals and fewer prostrate gland problems in male animals.

•Visit with the pet several times before making a final decision.

Dianne Daniels had a cocker spaniel in mind the day she visited the Humane Society, but, as she remembers it, an experience changed her mind.

"A small, carmel-colored dog kept leaping up in front of me like she was saying, 'Hey, lady, here I am! What are you waiting for?'

That fox terrier, who the Daniels named Cookie, obviously felt an immediate rapport with Dianne, and has been an established member of their family for over two years now. Just as some humans are more compatible than others, animals also feel different levels of compatibility with different people, and visiting with the animal can help both a child or adult and the animal to know whether they are compatible.

"Look for a puppy that is friendly, without signs of aggression--one that will roll on its back and let you pet its stomach without wanting to bite you," says Dr. Orr.

Non-traditional pets, such as this pot bellied pig, are often not good choices for those who do not have the facilities to take care of them.

Interestingly, dogs, cats and even birds have preferences for certain humans. How do you know when a bird likes you?

Dianne's husband, John was visiting a pet store when a large blue parrot named Bogart eagerly climbed onto his shoulder and started nuzzling his ear.

"A bird who likes you will demand your attention and want you to hold it," confirms Shapira.

•Decide who will care for the pet in advance.

Dr. Orr advises parents to prepare to take an active role in the family's pet ownership.

"Children need to watch a parent's example first rather than beginning pet care cold turkey. When a parent purchases a pet for a child, it should be with the consideration that he will likely provide some of the care himself."

Shapira confirms that caring for a pet can build a child's sense of responsibility. Keeping a commitment to care for a pet daily prepares a child for future commitments in life--such as holding a daily job or taking care of his or her own family. Children as young as two years old can help fill a dog's water dish. One Utah family with eight children rotates feeding their cat one night each week just as they rotate washing the dishes.

On the other hand, some parents feel that including pet care in a child's chores makes the child-pet relationship more of a "job" rather than a friendship.

"If your child simply says he wants a 'pet', or says he would like a dog but doesn't specify a breed, choose an animal that you like and feel you could take care of, because part of the care may be your responsibility," says Hanger.

•Help the pet make the initial adjustment to your home, and to any other pets.

Relocating is an adjustment for both humans and animals. Each animal is an individual, so adjustment is difficult to predict. One approach is that a calm, quiet introduction to the new environment helps an animal to assimilate smoothly. Hanger suggests that owners who bring kittens home should place them in one quiet room for their initial adjustment.

"Kittens who have the run of the house at first may become anxious and "misplace" their litter box," she says. "After the cat feels at home, you can move the box wherever you want and the cat can roam through the house and not be disoriented."

She also advises that puppies be placed in a quiet room in a kennel or crate with water and toys.

"This is the beginning of "crate training, where the theory of housebreaking is that a puppy will not soil where he has to sleep," she adds.

Shapira explains that a calm way to introduce an older pet to a new arrival is to allow them to first "meet" on turf that is not the older pet's territory.

"I find that if they meet on "neutral ground" the older pet will allow the new pet to come into his territory," she says.

• Obedience training builds congenial "pet relations."

Hanger suggests obedience training for all dogs. Puppies can enter "puppy kindergarten" at six months of age.

Rob Richards of K-9 Command argues that old dogs can learn new tricks--no matter how old they are. Obedience training results in a pet who is well-mannered around other people, and will not jump on children if you choose to take it to the park. An obedience trained dog will come if you call it, and if it ever gets loose and you yell stay--it stays.

If you are moving to a new location where your landlord feels anxious about pets, take your well behaved pet along and chances are that your landlord's worries will be laid to rest, suggests Shapira.

•Be patient. Housebreaking one dog by taking it outside frequently and rewarding it may work, while another will respond better to crate training. Like any bonding, a pet-owner relationship is always evolving.

"Be willing to take time, try more than one strategy and seek information from many sources," says Dr. Orr. "Remember that every animal and every household is individual. On the whole, pet ownership is rewarding because pets are tremendously giving creatures and the relationship is one where the provider offers food and care and the animal gives friendship and company."

As for children and pets relationships, there is no better combination when it works right. But kids should be involved in every way with a pet from playing with it to walking it and to caring for it when it is sick. That not only builds the bond between children and their pets, but also builds responsible characteristics in those who take on the responsibility over the years.

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July 18, 2002
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