Four-legged family members


What to consider before you bring home a pet

Story by Mara Severin

Was “puppy” the only word in your child’s letter to Santa?

Is a “Benji” DVD playing on a continual loop in your child’s playroom? Has your child ever been “followed home” by a stray?

If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, you may be considering a big change for your household: the addition of a family pet.

While there’s nothing more joyous than the day you bring home a new four-legged family member, there’s also nothing sadder than a shelter animal abandoned by its owners because they weren’t prepared to make a lifelong commitment. So, before you allow your heart to melt over the iconic image of a boy and his dog, show your child that being responsible for a pet begins even before you bring it home.

Consider care, costs and commitment

First, says Sally Clampitt, executive director of the Alaska Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, you must consider the basics. “Time, commitment, and money are extremely important,” she says.

Consider time: Can feeding, grooming, and exercise become a part of your already busy routine?

Consider commitment: Do you move often? Do you rent your home, leaving you subject to the whims of a landlord who might not be pet-friendly? Do you travel frequently?

Consider money: While adoption fees may be modest, be assured that veterinary bills, grooming costs, license fees, plus food, supplies and medication can take a serious financial toll.

Do you really want another baby?

If you’ve decided – as a family – that you’re a good candidate for a new pet, Marjorie Carter, a member of the board of directors of Friends of Pets, strongly urges you to consider adopting an adult animal.

“It’s hard to talk people out of wanting a puppy or a kitten,” she says, “But it’s another baby to take care of,” she says.

With a puppy, housetraining can be a long and frustrating experience and someone needs to be home to take the animal outside every two hours. Plus, baby animals are fragile and more likely to be hurt or intimidated by an exuberant and affectionate child.

Getting a pet with a resume

Both Clampitt and Carter recommend that you begin your search at local shelters and rescue organizations. The volunteers and workers of a rescue organization will know the animals’ personalities and often their history, says Carter. “They’ll be able to tell you if a dog is good with children, or if a cat has a mellow personality.”

Clampitt agrees that in a home with children, your biggest consideration is temperament. “You need to find an animal that likes children and is tolerant of them,” she says.

Choosing a pet is not child’s play

Once you’re ready to hit the shelters (Anchorage Animal Control, Kitty K9 Connection, Friends of Pets and the Alaska SPCA all have animals waiting to be adopted) leave the children at home, please. “It’s way beyond a child to do the looking,” Carter says. Rather than overwhelming your child with the sight of so many adorable animals, choose one or two that might be right for your family and then introduce your child. A child who has been eagerly hoping for a pet will be thrilled with whatever animal is chosen, says Carter.

Best of all is knowing that while many adult animals have a much harder time being adopted (putting them at greater risk of being euthanized), your family has given a deserving animal a new lease on life.

Teach responsibility by taking responsibility

Above all remember this: your child is a child and your pet is a pet, and ultimately you are responsible for the well being of both. “No matter how sincerely your child promises to do everything,” says Carter, “85 percent of the time mom or dad will provide much of the animal’s care.” It has to be a family decision, she says.

Clampitt agrees. “I think sometimes people get an animal because they want the animal to do something for them – teach the child this, that, or the other,” she says. In scenarios like this, when a child or pet falls short of a sometimes-unachievable mark, the owners end up relegating the pet to the garage or leave it tied up outside.

It’s also important to be clear on what pets are not meant to be. Pets aren’t toys. Dogs don’t have batteries that wear out. Cats don’t have an off-button. And if the novelty of a new pet wears off, you can’t put it in the bottom of the toy chest.

Still, pets can teach your children so many things – compassion, responsibility, tenderness – even how to cope with loss. But your pet is not a teacher. Teach your children responsible pet ownership by being a responsible pet owner yourself. Offer a needy animal a safe and loving home and then you’ll deserve all the fun, joy and companionship that a family pet can offer.