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You loved having a pet growing up, but now that you’re raising little ones, you wonder if they're old enough—and if the time is right to add a pet to your family. Fear not: It can be very beneficial for young kids to have pets, says Tierra Bonaldi, spokesperson for the American Pet Products Association and the Pets Add Life campaign and a working mom of two. “A lot depends on the age of the child and type of pet being introduced, but it doesn’t take much time to learn basic tips to ensure a safe and happy first impression and encounter.” Her advice:
Select the type of pet wisely. Small animals, fish and reptiles get the green light as pets for young children. You’ll like them, too, since taking care of these pets will require less time on your part. Dogs and cats, meanwhile, have traditionally been amazing companions and best friends for children. Just make sure the one you take home with you has been socialized to children and doesn't exhibit aggressive behaviors, Bonaldi says.
Help your child learn to approach. “When it comes to small animals and reptiles, teach your children to be gentle and to never squeeze or pet too hard," advises Bonaldi. "With dogs and cats, hold out your hand first to let them sniff it to make sure they seem comfortable before you try petting them.” When a dog or cat allows your child to pet it, remind your child to be gentle, avoid loud noises or rough play and respect the animal's personal space. Also go over the situations that might evoke a dangerous response, as when a dog is eating or when a toy is taken away from it.
Consider your child’s demeanor. Prepping your child about approaching pets is imperative, but it may take a bit more time depending on his personality. “If your child has a tendency to be too rough, you'll need to invest more time explaining the importance of being careful around pets and, depending on the pet type, how fragile they can be," says Bonaldi. "You'll want to closely supervise the interaction until you're confident your child and pet are comfortable with each other.”
Always supervise. Even if you think your child is 100 percent comfortable with a new pet, it’s important to monitor interactions, especially in the beginning. Bonaldi recommends watching for warning signs or inappropriate behavior from either your child or pet to prevent aggression.
Involve your child in pet care. Once your child gets used to the new family pet, ask him to help with care. “Everything from feeding, bathing, grooming and walking can teach your child to be responsible, committed and consistent—and it helps build self-confidence,” Bonaldi says. Just remember to keep it fun by rewarding your child for his pet-raising accomplishments. “Treat it as more of a privilege than a chore, so it’s a rewarding experience for both child and pet.”