Children and pets: nothing is more endearing. As parents, we watch our children develop bonds with family members, other friends, and us. Likewise, there is something almost sacred about the bond between a child and his or her pet that can lead to relationships with deep feelings outside the child/pet connection.

Caring for a pet leads to a special type of communicating that uses body language and vocalizations to learn about wants and needs. The mutual respect between a child and a pet also transfers into responsibility.

Caring for a living creature outside of themselves provides children with opportunities for an appreciation of nature and increased physical activity. In addition, when handled with care, a child develops greater emotional stability through dealing with unpleasant circumstances such as illness, accidents, or even death. On the other hand, pets also relieve stress during difficult times, helping the children calm their minds when painful or challenging issues arise.

Love, loyalty, and affection are basic needs for your child and his pet. Owning a pet helps a child develop tools to responsibly meet these needs. Kindness to animals benefits people as well because positive feelings about pets can contribute to a child’s self-confidence and self-esteem.

If you are not ready for the responsibility of a kitten or puppy, there are many other choices. Fish, hamsters, guinea pigs, and parakeets make wonderful first pets. Children learn to provide their pets with food, water, and clean environments as they carefully and gently interact with them. In addition, children often enjoy and learn from visits to the veterinarian for care of their pet. These lessons are invaluable in social relationships as the child grows and interacts with other people.

Caring for a pet is not an instinct. Children need to be taught how to care for their pets by observing their parents’ behavior. Although the ultimate goal is to have your child completely care for his or her animal, it remains the responsibility of the parent to be sure that the pet is healthy and well cared for at all times.

Ultimately, children who help care for a pet—keeping it happy and healthy—receive a sense of accomplishment well beyond the immediate reward of a loving pet.

by Veterinarian Dr. Warren Riggle