Back in the day, when I was setting up my very first email address, I was offered a range of security question choices. Among them was the all-familiar “name of your first pet” prompt.
There is a very good reason we are offered this specific choice. The name of our first pet is in all likelihood forever etched into our hearts and minds, just like the name of the first person we ever kissed.
(it’s Lucy, by the way – the girl, not the pet)
Being the kind of person that I am, I naturally opted for this specific security question. And got myself into a fair bit of trouble about 15 years later, when I couldn’t remember which of the 6 fish I chose as my first pet.
But, I digress.
The first pet that enters your child’s life will shape it like no other experience ever can. It will teach them empathy and compassion, responsibility and limitless affection. It will teach them patience and perseverance. If you choose this pet wisely.
Otherwise, you might end up adopting an animal you aren’t able to care for, that you will view as a nuisance and that will not only disrupt your life, but will not impart any important lessons to your child either.
In order to ensure the entire family (new pet included) have the best possible experience and enjoy each other’s company for a long time to come, consider these points carefully before you bring your new friend home.
The Age of Your Child
How old your child is will play a very important role in your choice of pet. Kids under the age of 5 or 6 are usually not mature enough to care for an animal, and they often treat it as they would a toy. Getting your toddler a cat or a dog can thus prove to be more of a challenge than you bargained for.
However, the internet is full of clips starring babies and felines or canines, proving that the match does work, so don’t write it off just because your child is young. If you are able to provide plenty of assistance and care, watching your 4-year-old learn to handle an animal with tenderness can be quite the humbling experience.
How ready your child is to share their space with an animal is also a more important consideration than their age.
Before you make a decision pet-wise, lay some groundwork. Read books about pets and taking care of them, and talk to your child about the responsibilities that come with the relationship. Emphasize the difficult as well as the pleasant: the animal will be loud sometimes, it will need to be fed and cleaned up after, it won’t always do what the child wants, and so on.
Make a point of taking your child to meet as many pets as possible. Observe how they behave around them. Notice if they are timid, a bit wild, genuinely happy or not phased at all. You may discover that your child is not actually interested in getting a pet at all.
The Age of the Animal
Another important consideration is the age of the pet. While the age of a smaller animal, like a hamster, goldfish or parrot will be less important, getting a kitten and adopting an adult cat are two completely different experiences.
And while puppies and kittens are an immense source of fun, they are also more of a handful. You will need to train and socialize them, and their personality will not be as developed, so you may end up choosing a pet that doesn’t match your family dynamic.
Adopting an adult animal means you can be better informed about their personality traits and behaviors. True, you will be missing out on the wild youngster action, but you will be opening up your home to a whole lot of love and gratitude.
Try to match your child’s age and the kinds of responsibilities and tasks they are able to take on with the needs of the pet as best you can.
Your Own Pet Ownership Experience
If you’ve grown up around cats yourself, or have owned dogs your entire life, you will already be equipped to welcome another member of the same species into your home. However, if you are a first-time pet owner yourself, you mustn’t forget that you will have to do a lot of learning and adapting yourself.
Having a pet is a huge responsibility, and there will be times when you just can’t cope. You will be tired, they will want something, make you spill something, wake you up in the middle of the night or just be obnoxiously loud, and you will curse the day you chose to open your home up to them.
If this is the first time you are facing this storm of emotions and thoughts, and if you don’t know how to react in a similar situation, consider getting a low-maintenance animal (how I hate the sound of that term!).
Look for a relaxed cat that already has all of their manners down. Or a dog that is easy to train and that won’t give you too much of a hard time. You can also consider a smaller pet that will help you learn some routines.
Most importantly: be ready to do the work. Learning how to take care of an animal as a family can be the most bonding of experiences, so while some hesitation is to be expected, don’t let a fear of the unknown dissuade you from welcoming an animal into your home.
Your Family’s Lifestyle
Another important point to consider is the way you live your life as a family. Are you at home a lot and prefer to spend time watching TV or playing games? Or are you an outdoorsy bunch and love to go on walks, hikes and play sports? Are you perhaps super busy and away from home a lot?
Consider what you believe each member of the family is capable of and how much time you each have on your hands. How can you, as a whole, work together to provide the best possible care?
If your child is still very young, remember that you will need to provide constant supervision. Are you able to do that? Are you at home enough?
Dogs and cats will require daily attention. True, cats can be left to their own devices for a good portion of the day, but you still need to feed them, clean up after them, and provide plenty of cuddles and playtime when you are at home. Dogs are pack animals and will want to be around you. They don’t do well when left on their own for extraordinarily long, plus, they need their daily exercise.
On the other hand, smaller pets, like fish, turtles, hamsters or guinea pigs demand less care, and they can be the better choice for a busy family, or for a small child who is just learning to live with an animal.
Your Living Space
How much space you have in your home is something else to think about. An animal that lives in a tank or a cage will fit into the smallest of homes, but dogs and cats will need their space.
If you have a garden, you will also want to consider whether to let the cat roam around freely, and risk them getting injured or hurt. If you live in an apartment, you want to make sure the dog isn’t too loud, and that it gets plenty of outdoor exercise every day.
The Pet’s Personality
Finally, you want to make sure that your pet’s personality is a good match for your child (and yourself).
Kids that are energetic and playful will love to run around with a dog, and will likely not be too interested in a pair of goldfish. On the other hand, timid children may have a harder time adjusting to and accepting a very playful puppy.
If you are adopting your first pet, try choosing an adult animal whose personality has already developed, to avoid any surprises down the line. If you are getting a dog or a cat from a breeder, make sure they are incredibly reputable, and triple-check their credentials. And don’t forget that while most animals will be true to breed, there are still exceptions, and you might become the owner of a pet that isn’t quite what you expected them to be.
Family History of Allergies and Asthma
One final consideration to bear in mind is your family’s history with allergens. If a close relative suffers from allergies, there is a chance you or your child might be allergic to the pet you are considering. Be sure you and the kids spend as much time as possible around other pets, to test the waters.
Children who grow up around pets, especially from a very early age, are however less likely to develop allergies later in life, so if you have no family history of unwanted reactions, having a pet can help your child grow into a healthier adult.
What Should Your Child’s First Pet Be?
After you have considered all of the above, you should be able to narrow your list down and land on the ideal first pet for your child. Don’t make any impulse decisions (no matter how cute the animal is), and take your time to weigh all the pros and cons. You may also want to take the cat person vs. dog person debate into consideration too.
Whether you end up cuddling with a cat or watching a lizard soak up the rays – prepare yourself for the challenges, and fully embrace all the feels.