With the kids home for summer, now is a good time to bring home their first pet. But expert animal behaviorist Darlene Arden says there are a number of important considerations before you do.
Arden offered her advice recently on KIRO Radio's It's Raining Cats and Dogs. Most importantly, she says it's best to wait until the child is at least 7-years-old.
"Before the age of seven, children don't understand they can inflict pain," she says.
That means the first word you need to introduce to your child is "gentle."
"We hand children stuffed animals and expect them to know the difference between a stuffed animal and a real one and they don't."
Unfortunately, too many parents let their children poke and prod an animal, and if the animal bites or scratches they get blamed.
Arden says it's not a bad idea to start with a caged pet like a hamster or gerbil. But she cautions children should always be supervised with even the smallest of pets.
"Don't forget anything a child can pickup a child can drop," she warns.
Many parents start with something even simpler like a turtle. But even those come with their own potential issues.
"Make sure they wash their hands," Arden says. "Because kids puts their fingers in their mouths, in their eyes, in their noses and turtles can cause problems."
Dogs and cats remain far and away the most popular pets. And Arden says it's important to teach kids to speak quietly around them.
"Children tend to scream and yell and swoop over animals. And no animal can understand what it could have possibly done to precipitate that sort of reaction from a human."
When it comes to which breed of dog or cat is best, there are a number of considerations from size to activity level. If your family isn't exceptionally active or lives in a smaller place, the last thing you want is a big dog bouncing off the walls.
Other experts say beyond a child's age, another important consideration is their level of responsibility. If they can't even do the simplest of tasks, they likely won't be able to handle a pet. And even though pets can be a positive, many say there's no need to foist a pet on a child if they aren't that interested.
Despite all her warnings, though, Arden insists a pet can bring far more "amazing" benefits to a child's life.
"Children learn so much about how to behave, and gentleness and responsibility and caring for others. It's such a joy. But it's up to the parents to supervise and help teach these lessons."