A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Should You Say “Yes” to the Pet?

Are your kids begging you to get a pet? I’ve been there! Cats, dogs, guinea pigs, a hamster, chickens, even an octopus! We’ve had almost all possible childhood pets living at my house – although I’ve drawn the line at ones with feathers and scales. (Okay, we did have fish and later chickens in a coop in the backyard.) We’ve loved them deeply and given them sweet names: Tom Shadow, Franny, Zooey, Storm, Artemis, Maggie, Percy, Zeus, Mohawk, and Huckle Cat.

We like to laugh at their antics. “Remember when Franny caught her tail on fire and we couldn’t catch her?” Or how about our cat Maggie who plays fetch. Percy the dog sneezed joyfully anytime one of us came home, so now my daughter and I will goofily sneeze at each other sometimes to share the memory. Our labrador Zeus gently sneaks items of my clothing to bed with him every night.

Our pets have made us smile and made us cry. Their deaths have allowed my kids to “practice” mourning before they had to mourn for lost people. They’ve taught my kids caring and responsibility. Their presence makes our lives richer.

So if you were to ask me, I’d say, “Yes, get your child a pet!”

If your kids are trying to convince you, maybe they should let you know that research shows having pets in a home with kids has many potential benefits.

Kids from homes with pets may have:

  • Less depression, anxiety, and loneliness
  •  Improved self-esteem and sense of self-importance
  • Less eczema and asthma

Of course, pet ownership isn’t for everyone and is a decision to take seriously. If you’re planning to have a pet, here are some things to think about.

  •  Get your child tested for dog and cat allergies, or at least have them spend time around your potential pet, if you have a family history of allergies.
  • Talk with your pediatrician if your child has allergies or asthma. While research suggests that kids raised in homes with cats may develop less asthma and allergies, getting a cat or dog may make their symptoms much worse.
  • Choose the type of pet carefully. Young children may do better with pets requiring lower maintenance, like fish or guinea pigs. Research breeds to find the gentlest kind.
  •  Know that however much your child now promises they’ll do all the work needed to take care of a pet, they may not be able to keep the promise! Their interest may wane, they may become busy with school and sports leaving some pets looking at youfor exercise, cleaning, and food.

There are safety considerations too.

  • Never leave a young child and a pet together alone. Bites often happen when the child is playing but doesn’t understand a pet’s signals. Even a trained, family pet can unexpectedly bite – and the consequences are amongst the saddest injuries I have had to care for as a pediatrician.
  • Teach child to never put their face near an animal or disturb an animal that is sleeping or eating.
  • Show your child how to approach a dog. The first step is to always ask the owner and wait for clear permission. Then let the dog sniff the child before they slowly extend a hand.
  • Make sure your kids wash their hands with soap and water after handling all family pets. Pets can spread disease. For example, reptiles can carry salmonella.
  • Tell children to never pet a wild animal. Raccoons, bats, and rodents can carry serious diseases (hantavirus, plague, rabies, toxoplasmosis).

Having a pet can bring you and your kids joy – if everyone understands the responsibility and safety issues with bringing home a furry, scaly, or feathery new member of the family.

Find more resources for parents:

My Doctor Online:
Asthma and Pets (Emmi)

Pets and a New Baby

American Academy of Pediatrics:
Allergies and Asthma: When Pets Are the Problem
Safety Around Animals
Cats and Children With Asthma

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