Your Child’s First Pet

Pets have a great deal to offer children. They provide companionship, teach important lessons about responsibility and benefit children with mental health and behavioral problems. However, there are several considerations when choosing a pet for your child to ensure a healthy and safe relationship.

Choosing an appropriate pet

When you are deciding what sort of pet to bring into your home, take your child’s age and developmental stage into consideration. If your child has medical conditions such as asthma, allergies, or immunodeficiency, you need to take extra precautions in selecting a pet. Discuss with your doctor and veterinarian.

Find the right animal and breed

For young children, dogs and cats can be challenging pets because of the attention and care they require. Instead birds, fish, and guinea pigs require minimal care and can provide a great introduction to pet care until your child is ready for more responsibility.

If you are considering a dog as a pet, consider breeds of a more gentle nature like retrievers and beagles. Other breeds such as German shepherds and pit bulls may be too aggressive and unpredictable to be safe pets for young children. Choose a dog that is unlikely to bite, and try to match the dog’s level of activity with what your family can safely provide. Adult animals (older than a year) tend to be less excitable and may be a better choice than puppies or kittens for young children.

Reptiles and babies don’t mix

If your child is less than 5 years old, a turtle, chameleon or other reptile is not an ideal pet. Almost all reptiles carry salmonella bacteria in their intestinal tracts and shed it regularly in their feces. It is harmless for the reptiles, but it can cause very serious illness in humans.

Older pet owners can take steps to minimize the risk of ingesting salmonella bacteria, such as careful handwashing, but young children may not observe these precautions. The Center for Disease Control recommends that children younger than 5 years avoid contact with reptiles.

Keeping your pets healthy

The most important measure in protecting your child’s health when dealing with a household pet is to ensure the health of the pet.

  • Make sure pets are vaccinated.
  • Give pets regular veterinary care. If your child has a compromised immune system, have your pet’s stools tested annually for common pathogens.
  • Minimize interaction with other animals. Don’t let your pets roam around the neighborhood unsupervised. Interactions with other animals outdoors can expose them to diseases that can be transmitted to your family.

Good habits when caring for your pet

Teach your children early on healthy habits when handling pets to avoid disease transmission and injuries or animal bites.

Practice good sanitation

Good sanitary habits can minimize the risk of disease being transmitted from pets to humans in your household. Follow these guidelines:

  • Wash your hands after interacting with pets. This is especially important for children who are vulnerable because of allergies or compromised immune systems.
  • Don’t use the kitchen sink to wash pet cages and other items associated with pets.
  • Keep pets away from food and food-preparation surfaces.

Teach children to respect pets

Some of the dangers associated with animal interaction are bites and scratches. Aside from avoiding contact with aggressive pets and wild animals, it is important to teach children to approach all animals with caution.

Make sure an adult is supervising any interaction between a child less than 5 years and neighborhood pets. Instruct children to steer clear of animals they don’t know. Make sure your child knows to ask the owner of any pet for permission before approaching and petting it. Educate children to always treat any pet gently and with respect.

Bites and scratches

Sometimes bites and scratches happen despite parents’ best efforts. If your child is bitten or scratched by an animal, follow these steps:

  • Clean the wound with soap and water, immediately and thoroughly.
  • Seek medical advice. Call your child’s primary care provider to see if further treatment — such as antibiotics, vaccines, or stitches to close the wound — is warranted. This is especially important for deep puncture wounds.
  • Be alert for signs of infection. Even minor scratches can introduce pathogens that can cause serious health problems. If the area around a scratch becomes red, hot or swollen, contact your child’s doctor.

Have fun!

Pets can be a wonderful source of companionship and emotional growth for children. With a few easy precautions, most children can benefit from animal companions.


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