Pluses of Childhood Pets
Having pets seems like every child’s dream—even a rite of passage. I remember how fervently I tried to convince my own parents of the reasons why we needed to get a puppy or a kitten (or a baby sister). So this one is for all those readers—or their kids—trying to convince someone to let you get a pet. Bringing a pet home and taking care of it does offer many benefits.
A pet can be a great companion and friend to a child, especially a child on the shy side or one who has experienced a move or other life change. Because a pet can’t talk, it cannot judge, laugh at or make fun of anyone. A pet is just present and always happy to see its owner. A pet’s welcoming affection can be a powerful mood booster for children and adults alike. When children do have friends, pets can add a sense of pride, offering the opportunity for kids to show off their animal friend to their human friends.
“Pets are good protectors. We always know when someone comes near the house, and I like when my dogs are in the backyard with my girls when I’m not out there,” Heather Weber, Olathe mother of three and dog owner of two, says. “They also bring joy! Our dogs are super snuggly with the kids. And the vacuum benefit! They really do help with crumbs and food on the floor.”
I definitely appreciate my own dog’s company, especially when my husband travels for work or when I run on trails.
Depending on the type of animal you choose for a family pet, it can provide a great reason to step outside and get some exercise. Movement and sunlight improve your mood, and stepping away from a screen, whatever your age, can be a good thing. Personally, I sought out a dog that would need daily exercise to make sure I didn’t skip out on my own walk or run. Exercising a pet can be a family activity or, as kids get older, an independent activity and responsibility. Encourage your kids and pets to wear each other out—a big win for you!
Pet exercise doesn’t have to be limited to dogs—use some creativity. I had rabbits as a child and would take them out in the yard on harnesses with leashes!
Pets are also an effective way to learn values like responsibility, ownership, time and money management, as well as selflessness and empathy. “My first thought on pets is the responsibility Dolly is teaching our kids,” says Sara Clark, Olathe mother of two and dog owner. “It's their job to feed her and give her water. I also encourage them to let her outside when she needs it. Most of the time I have to remind them, but they are getting better about doing it on their own.”
Sarah Taylor, Baldwin City mother of three and owner of two outdoor dogs, two outdoor cats and 12 chickens, says her family’s menagerie has been very educational. “Our kids, ages 11, 10 and 8, have learned over the last few years all the tasks needed to care for our animals—so it’s lots of responsibility training. Also, because we have chickens, they’ve learned an entrepreneurial mindset, budgeting income and expenses and researching breeds with desired traits.”
Everyone needs to understand that even the best animals can react when poked, prodded or jumped on, and parents need to monitor kids and pets when they’re together.
Sadly, pets also sometimes provide lessons in loss and grief. “We’ve lost animals, so we’ve had to navigate that journey together too and learned healthy strategies to handle the loss,” Taylor says.
Having a family pet also has been shown to decrease stress simply by providing someone to talk to and pet. Many schools and libraries have therapy dogs to help kids with their social and reading skills. My daughter had a rough transition to her new school after our most recent move, but the school office had a therapy dog she was able to visit and pet during the day to calm and comfort herself.
“In addition to giving students a fun, positive association with reading and writing, dogs also provide numerous physical and mental health benefits. Studies have shown that interacting with a dog helps to lower blood pressure and cortisol levels. This helps students feel more comfortable, less stressed and better able to focus on their work,” says SitStayRead.org. LirbraryDogs.com says more than young readers get a boost from gentle therapy dogs: “Many college campuses welcome therapy dogs to help students ‘shed the stress’ of final exams. Indiana University students can book time in ‘Rent-a-Puppy’ day with puppies from a local animal shelter.” Personally, I remember the animal shelter’s bringing dogs onto our campus during finals week, and it was definitely a highlight for me.
Many couples start life together with a pet as their first “baby,” thinking they will ease into the chaos of raising children. Others add the responsibility after children arrive. Either way, understanding the realities of pet ownership, besides the basics of feeding, clean water and exercise, is important. Consider there will be vet bills and boarding fees when you travel. Our family has a separate budget allocated just for our dog for these very reasons. My Golden Retriever is prone to ear infections and has developed one when all three of my kids had them too. Pet health is definitely one more thing to worry about on top of mothering small humans. But when my dog is out of the house, I miss him and it doesn’t feel like home.
If you’re not ready to commit to a pet yet, seek out a reading-to-dogs program or visit or volunteer at your local animal shelter to reap the rewards of being around animals. Or you can always get a fish.
Stephanie Loux is the mother of Layla, 8, Mason, 6, and Slade, 3, as well as dog mom of her Golden Retriever, Thor. She has had four rabbits, an aqua-baby frog and many fish as well.