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Tips for Choosing the Right Pet for Your Family

Tips for Choosing the Right Pet for Your Family Tips for Choosing the Right Pet for Your Family

Are you thinking about bringing a pet into your family?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers some helpful advice and things to keep in mind before choosing on an animal.

Before selecting a pet, keep your child's developmental stage in mind. 

  • If you are getting a pet as a companion for your child, it is a good idea to wait until she is mature enough to handle and care for the animal—usually around age 5 or 6. Younger children have difficulty distinguishing an animal from a toy, so they may inadvertently provoke a bite through teasing or mistreatment.

  • If your child is developmentally ready, discuss the needs of the animal and everything that is involved in caring for it first. Books on pet care from the library can help your child understand the responsibility. Visit a friend or extended family member who has a pet and allow your child to see firsthand what the care of a pet involves.

Some pets have easygoing temperaments conducive to being around children. 

  • Dogs such as retrievers and beagles tend to be gentle with kids. Other breeds, such as boxers, German shepherds, pit bulls and Doberman pinschers, and miniature French poodles, may be more unpredictable. Keep the animal's characteristics in mind when selecting a pet.

What about allergies?

  • The dander (shed skin cells, hairs, and feathers) of some animals can evoke allergic symptoms in certain children. If your child has allergies (eczema, hay fever, asthma) or your family has a strong history of allergic disorders, bringing a pet into the house may not be a good idea. Ask your pediatrician or a local veterinarian for advice. 

What about disease?

  • Almost every type of pet is a potential source of disease that can infect your child. All reptiles, for example, can carry and transmit salmonella bacteria that can cause serious diarrhea. However, as long as your child practices reasonable hygiene, especially hand washing after playing with a pet and before eating, they should be safe. 

Know how much time your family has to care for a pet.

  • Some pets, like dogs or cats, require daily attention. They must be fed, groomed, cleaned up after, and exercised. Others pets like fish, turtles, birds, guinea pigs, and hamsters, demand minimal care―and may be a good choice for a younger child who needs to learn about what is involved in having a pet or busy families with less time. A goldfish requires feeding only every two to three days with its water changed only periodically. A dog cannot be neglected for even a one day.

Is it better to get a younger or older pet first?

  • Look for a pet with a gentle disposition. An older animal is often a good choice for a child, because a puppy or kitten may bite out of sheer friskiness. Avoid older pets raised in a home without children, however.

  • Buy pets only from reputable breeders and shelters. Otherwise you increase the risk of purchasing an ill or diseased animal and endangering you child and yourself.

​Precautions to prevent animal bites:

Although most animals are friendly, some can be dangerous. More than any other age group, children between the ages of 5 and 9 are the victims of animal bites―about 5% of all children this age are bitten by an animal every year. Children ages 9 to 14 are next in line as the most frequent victims of animal bites. 

As a parent, you have ultimate responsibility for your child's safety around any animal―including your own pets, neighborhood pets, and wild animals. Here are some suggestions to talk over with child.

  • Do not tease or abuse an animal. Treat your pet humanely so it will enjoy human company. Don't, for example, tie a dog on a short rope or chain, since extreme confinement may make it anxious and aggressive. Don't allow your child to tease your pet by pulling its tail or taking away a toy or a bone. Make sure she doesn't disturb the animal when it's sleeping or eating.

    • Purposeful maltreatment of an animal is a cause for concern and should be discussed with your child's pediatrician. If your child continues to tease animals after you have talked about it with her and make it clear to her that this is unkind as well as dangerous, your child may benefit from the counseling of your pediatrician or a mental health professional.

  • Never leave a young child alone with an animal. Many bites occur during periods of playful roughhousing, because the child doesn't realize when the animal gets overexcited. Incidents are rare in which a dog, for example, aggressively attacks when unprovoked. Teach your child not to put her face close to an animal.

  • Find out which neighbors have pets. Have your child meet pets with which she's likely to have contact. Teach your child how to greet a dog: The child should stand still while the dog sniffs her; then she can slowly extend her hand to pet the animal.

  • Never pet an unfamiliar dog or cat. Warn your child to stay away from yards in which dogs seem high-strung or unfriendly. Teach older children the signs of an unsafe dog: rigid body, stiff tail at "half mast," hysterical barking, crouched position, staring expression. Also, be cautious about touching puppies or kittens within view of their mother.

  • Stand still if you are approached or chased by a strange animal. Tell your child not to run, ride her bicycle, kick, or make threatening gestures. Refrain from making direct eye contact, slowly back away, and avoid sudden movements while keeping the dog within view. If your child is riding his bike and is being chased by a dog, he should not try to pedal quickly away from it. Rather, he should stop the bike and dismount from it so that the bike is between him and the dog. Before long, the animal may lose interest in a non-moving "target."

  • Teach your child to avoid all undomesticated animals. Wild animals can carry very serious diseases that may be transmitted to humans. Fortunately, most wild animals come out only at night and tend to shy away from humans. Avoid contact with rodents and other wild animals (raccoons, skunks, foxes) that can carry diseases ranging from hantavirus to plague, from toxoplasmosis to rabies. A wild animal that is found in your yard or neighborhood during the daylight hours might have an infectious disease like rabies, and you should contact the local health authorities.

    • To avoid bites by wild creatures: Notify the health department whenever you see an animal that seems sick or injured, or one that is acting strangely. Don't try to catch the animal or pick it up.

    • If your child is bitten by a pet or other animal: Do not ignore the wound. Infections can occur–more often from cat bites than dog bites. Be sure any dogs or cats you own are fully immunized against rabies to protect both your pet and your family. Bites by wild animals should be examined promptly by your pediatrician, and public health recommendations about treatment to prevent rabies should be followed. Often the psychological harm associated with an animal bite is at least as serious as the physical wound itself.  Once bitten–or even snapped at or growled at by a dog–a child may develop a lifetime fear of all dogs and other animals. 


Additional Information:


The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.