The pros and cons of dogs and cats
Dogs and cats make great pets. Kittens are particularly fun for young children but remember an adult cat may or may not be snuggly or interactive – this can vary a lot with breed or temperament.
Puppies are compelling but remember that they require a lot of training, and don’t always respond well to commands from children.
Dogs often see children as ‘part of their pack’ rather than the leader of the pack, like an adult.
“It can often be quite challenging. I’d encourage parents to make puppy training something your child participates in. You might find that when the child gives a command to the dog it won’t work, but if you let them stand next to you and give the treat when the dog sits or drops (that is, obeys the command), the dog will begin to understand that in some way the child is associated with you. Then, there will be a positive association with you both,” Martin says.
Martin also says to ensure young children don’t play competitive games with their dog; even when children are quietly playing with the dog an adult should still always be present.
“Dogs develop very quickly and can go from being a harmless puppy to a rough dog in a short period. It’s important to monitor dogs with children under ten, in particular younger children who are more susceptible to being knocked over, or may do something that elicits a negative response from your dog,” he says.
Martin recommends children shouldn’t be left alone outside playing with their dog, as nasty bites can occur.
It’s just one reason he says integrating a dog into a family with young children is easier if the dog is allowed inside: this makes it easier to monitor interactions and reduces the excitement associated with a “human coming outside” when interactions are more intermittent.
The advantages of fish and birds
Fish and birds are often seen as easy pets, and Martin agrees either is worth having.
“I know people who’ve kept birds and taught them to fly around and sit on their shoulder, while bigger parrots are highly intelligent and their interactions can be quite unique,” he says.
Fish are obviously simple for the most part but be realistic: maintenance of the tank will be a task for older children or adults. Younger children can help to feed fish, but only under supervision.
“If a child decides to feed the fish half of the container that will kill the fish. It’s important to supervise for the animal’s welfare, not just the child’s welfare,” Martin says.
Fish can also offer young children an introduction to one of the trickiest topics for parents: death.
“Don’t secretly replace a dead fish: dying is something we all need to confront. As hard as it is, a child coming to terms with the death of a pet is a wonderful way to learn about how to cope with grief. Children under seven can struggle to understand the concept, so you don’t want to make too big a thing of it. But while they may not completely understand it until later on, it can be a useful discussion to have,” Martin says.
Helping young children become responsible for their pet
While it’s important parents don’t have unrealistic expectations of young children, there are still plenty of ways to instil responsibility for pet care by taking small steps.
“Pets offer a wonderful learning environment for children. You can show them how you feed the pet and explain how to do it. If your child is under five I would be doing all those things with them rather than leaving them to it,” says Martin.
It’s also important to maintain good pet health.
“Ensuring your pet is vaccinated and dewormed will reduce the chance of infections crossing between your pet and your child," says Martin.
Remember, some birds carry disease – so no kissing. Talking to your vet is a good way to learn how to keep your pet and the family healthy and safe.