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Question

How old should my children be before we adopt a pet?

Laura Marusinec, MD, FAAP

Answer

​​More time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic has many families eager to welcome a furry friend. Having a cat or dog can be emotionally rewarding for children and adults. Owning a dog also can get the family out of the house for fresh air and exercise on daily walks.

The age of your children is one factor to consider when getting a pet. Generally, since many dog bite injuries happen to young children, it may be safest to wait until your child is older than age 4. But think about your children and their individual maturity levels, because each child develops differently. There are 6-year-olds who are calm around animals and may be ready to be responsible, just as there are 10-year-olds who may be too active and impatient to be around pets.

Also keep in mind that when you have a baby or toddler, you are already juggling a lot. This may not be an ideal time to adopt a puppy or kitten, especially if you've never had a pet. Waiting until your family has more time to devote to the pet, you know whether your child has allergies, and your child is old enough to understand how to behave around animals is a smart move.

Other points to keep in mind

If your children do recognize the importance of being calm and​ quiet around a new pet as the animal gets comfortable in the home, then it might be a good time to adopt. Still, keep these other tips in mind:

Talk over and weigh the decision carefully

Discuss the responsibilities with your children and take your time when looking at animals. Animal shelter adoption staff members and responsible breeders should have ideas for potential pets for you based on your situation and children's ages. Enlist their help and be honest about your home life and children's activity and patience levels.

Don't just choose a pet because of how it looks

Think about both the needs of the pet and the safety of your children. When it comes to dogs, there are many breeds to choose from, along with mixes. It's important to make sure that the temperament and other traits of the pet don't put your child at increased risk of injury. A large, strong dog may not be the best fit for a home with young children. Avoid animals that have behavioral issues or a history of aggression or bites.

Closely supervise your child around pets

Even if your children are respectful of the pet, you will need to closely supervise interactions between your young children and the animal. This is to monitor for possible aggression issues, and to ensure your children are not pulling on the dog's ears or grabbing the cat's tail. An aggravated or fearful animal sometimes will lash out and scratch or bite.

A new pet is a member of the family and can be a tremendous source of joy for your child, but safety comes first. Unfortunately, children are the most common victims of bites from pets and are far more likely to be severely injured.

Many bites happen during playful roughhousing, because children don't always realize when a pet gets overstimulated or irritated. It's uncommon for a dog or cat to attack without a reason. Your children should be old enough to understand not to put their face near the animal's face, and not to tease a pet by grabbing toys or treats from them. Also, young children should be kept away from pets when they are eating or sleeping.

Let your child help with training

Consider having your child take part in obedience training with you. This can help them learn how to properly handle a dog or puppy and to train the animal only through positive reinforcement. Ensure your children understand that a pet should never be yelled at or hit. Everyone in the house should use positive reinforcement to encourage ideal behavior. If you see troubling signs of animal mistreatment by a child, talk to your pediatrician for guidance.

Teach kids to care for a​ pet

You likely will be doing most of the work taking care of the pet, of course. However, if you have children who are roughly 5 or older, they can be expected to help you with some of the simple chores, such as leashing the dog, giving out treats after walks, or refilling the water bowl.

Taking care of an animal is a great way to learn about responsibility and caring for others. Setting a schedule with your child for exercising and brushing your pet can help build responsible behaviors. It can also support a sense of organization for your child, which is vital for mental health.

Pets and their people also build a bond that can help teach about compassion and caring for another creature. Children can translate these skills as they interact with others.

Remember

You want the new family member to be happy and healthy for many years and your children to have a loyal best friend. And, you want everyone to be safe.

More​​ information

Laura Marusinec, MD, FAAP

​Laura Marusinec, MD, FAAP, is an Urgent Care Pediatrician and Clinical Performance Improvement Specialist at Children's Wisconsin. She is a member of the AAP Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention.

Last Updated
4/21/2021
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.
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