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Pets and Preschoolers

How To Choose the Right Pet for Your Family

Deborah Meyer was taken aback when her 3-year-old son, Timmy, came home from preschool and asked why they didn't have any pets.

"He said that his friend, Mark, had a dog and his classmate, Elizabeth, had two cats," she says. "They even had a goldfish and two caterpillars in cocoons in the classroom, so it seemed like everywhere Timmy looked, he saw animals. I knew it was only a matter of time before he wanted one of his own."

So, after having a nice, long, age-appropriate talk about caring for the soon-to-be-newest member of the family, Timmy and Mom headed to the pet store.

"I was absolutely overwhelmed by the number of different types of animals they had, so you can imagine how Timmy felt," she says. "Here I was thinking about a nice, quiet goldfish while he was over at the tank pointing to a prairie dog."

Like most parents, Deborah Meyer figured that, although her young son would get all the pleasure of having a pet, she would be stuck with most of the work, so the pet that would require the least amount of maintenance would be the one she would try to convince her little one to take home. But if your child is stuck on getting a pet, is a fish your only option?

"Actually, a fish is probably the worst thing you could get for a child who is under 8 or so," says Bob Meyer of Pets Galore, a store in upstate New York that features a wide array of tropical fish and reptiles in addition to the standard goldfish and rabbits. "Aquariums for tropical and freshwater fish require a lot of regular maintenance, something that a young child probably would not be able to do all that successfully without a great deal of help from an adult." In other words, Mom or Dad would probably be stuck regulating the water temperature and making sure the filter is doing what it's supposed to be doing.

Kid-Friendlier Pets

Bob Meyer says that pets that don't require as much maintenance, don't mind being handled or don't need to be played with that often are probably the best things for younger children.

"Surprisingly, mammals are usually good choices because they often don't need special heat requirements or diets that are too far out of the ordinary," he says. He recommends small rodents like teddy bear or black bear hamsters, mice, gerbils, rats or rabbits, even though Mom and Dad may have to help with the cage cleanup until the children are old enough to do it themselves.

"Guinea pigs are pretty good as well," says Bob Meyer. "They are pretty friendly, can stand being picked up a lot or hardly played with at all and they don't need to be walked like Fido."

Small Animals for Small Hands

Former pet store owner Tom Fischer says that parents should also keep in mind that cute little baby pets could grow into big adults relatively quickly.

"Sometimes they even get so big that little children are unable to pick them up," he says. "I've seen kids struggle with adult rabbits that they were able to easily lift out of the cages a month or two before." Fischer suggests smaller, palm-sized critters that won't get too much bigger during their life span. "Hermit crabs are good like that," he says. "They only get but so big so a new cage or bigger muscles aren't necessary."

You may wish to avoid lizards, chameleons, iguanas, snakes or box turtles, as they can transmit salmonella bacteria to humans. Salmonella, which can be life threatening to young children, the elderly or anyone with a weakened immune system, causes severe diarrhea and high fever.

"If you do decide on an iguana, remind everyone in the family to wash their hands thoroughly with warm, soapy water after touching or handling the animal," says Fischer.

Do Your Homework

Whatever pet you and your child decide on, both Bob Meyer and Fischer recommend learning as much about the pet before you bring it home as possible.

"If you settle on a ferret, buy a book on ferrets before you buy all kinds of equipment that you won't need or forget something you really might," says Bob Meyer.

"Books are good because they give you the real deal on how to feed and take care of the pet before he comes home to stay," says Fischer.

Deborah Meyer says that after a lot of convincing and no less than three trips back to the pet store, she and Timmy finally settled on two fancy goldfish and a 2-gallon tank that fit easily on Timmy's dresser in his room. She showed him how to feed the fish and decided that he could only feed them before he left for school in the morning while Mom was around.

"That way he really knew they were his to care for," she says. "Of course, I have to change the water once a week, but he helps me scoop them out [of the tank] and watches as I clean the bowl."

New Pet Primer

If you are thinking about getting a pet for your child, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Be realistic. Try and encourage your child to choose a pet that fits his or her lifestyle. For example, if your child spends every other weekend with another parent, or if you travel a lot, a pet that requires a lot of attention may not be the best choice.
  • Remember that pets die. Most domesticated animals have life spans much shorter than ours. Be prepared for questions about what happened to the pet from your youngster.
  • Hidden costs. The cost of the cuddly little critter in the pet store window isn't only reflected in the sticker price on the outside of the cage. Remember to also factor in the cost of food, litter, toys and trips to the vet.
  • Not for the squeamish. Before you decide on a pet that only eats live food (like larger snakes) or one that reminds you of the movie Ben, ask yourself a few questions like: Can you handle tossing live crickets into the tank? Could you pick up the hamster and return it to its Habitrail? You might have to if your little one loses interest or if your furry friend gets out of his cage.

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