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08.08.13

Children and Pets: The Benefits and Risks

Children and Pets: The Benefits and Risks

Whether they want it to bark, purr, slither or squawk, there comes a time when a pet appears on nearly every child's birthday wish list. For most parents, this decision can be a bit daunting. Is your child ready to take on the responsibility of caring for a pet? Will the new animal negatively affect his or her health? Though your child may think your wary attitude is unnecessary, these are valid questions for every parent to ask themselves and their family before welcoming a new pet into their home.

"The first thing that you need to think of is if your children are old enough and responsible enough to handle a pet around the house," said Dr. Mark Stickney, Clinical Associate Professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. "You also need to be aware of the temperament of the new pet that you're bringing in." Low maintenance animals, such as hamsters and fish, prove to be great starter pets for children. They require minimal amounts of time and care, introducing the child to the responsibilities of pet ownership without giving them more than they can manage.

Of course, puppies and kittens are always crowd pleasers as well. Their high energy level and love for attention makes them the perfect child companion. But what about when little Bobby begs for that snake at the pet store? "With animals like lizards and snakes, their care and feeding requirements can be a bit tricky as far as humidity, temperature etc.," Stickney said. "These animals also eat other animals for food, which may be upsetting to some children. Depending on their age and maturity, that might be something beyond a child's ability to handle."

When choosing a family pet, it is also important to take into consideration your children's sensitivity to various allergens. "One of the first things that you need to do is consult with your physician," said Stickney. "If your child is allergic to pollen or some sort of grass that an animal could track into the house, an indoor animal such as a cat would be a non-issue."

However, if your children still have their heart set on that fluffy puppy, there are certainly ways to accommodate their desires.  "Some dog breeds, such as Poodles and Yorkies, are considered to be less allergenic than others based on the amount of fur that they shed," Stickney said. "And there is even evidence to support that infants exposed to animals earlier in life are less likely to develop allergies later on."

Allowing your children to care for a pet is not all risk. Having a pet in your family has shown to be equally beneficial for both the animal and child. "Dogs especially really enjoy having someone to play with them, teach them tricks, and do some basic obedience training," said Stickney. "It's mentally stimulating for both the dog and child, which can improve discipline on both ends."

Research has shown numerous health benefits of owning a pet, including lower blood pressure and elevated mood. There is even evidence to support that interaction between pets and children with disabilities, such as Down's syndrome or Autism, is extremely beneficial. "The key is that you need to have a nice, docile pet," Stickney said. "One that isn't too active or rough, but that just wants to be loved on and to love right back."

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the Web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.



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