A huge proportion of the surrender of small animals (rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils) we experience at the MSPCA is due to “kids lost interest.” This is a sad but true reality, and one that is completely preventable. Contrary to popular belief, caged pets are not a great choice for small children. That being stated, if you do choose to acquire a small pet for your family, and you have young kids you expect to partake in their care, here are some tips from seasoned parents to help ensure success and prevent their surrender when the novelty wears off (we promise you, it will).
1) Do your homework.
Research the types of pets your kids want, including their cage requirements, diet and exercise needs, behavior, and life expectancy. The animal that appeals to you or your children the most won’t necessarily be the best or easiest choice for your family. Doing a little homework early on can help prevent disappointment further down the road, and will narrow down a wide scope of possible pets from which to choose.
2) Make your pet choice as a family.
Which type of animal to adopt, and which specific pet, should be a family choice not an individual choice. Each member of the family should be “on board” and comfortable handling, cleaning, and (hopefully) bonding with this animal. If anyone isn’t feeling the connection, that person may come to resent the animal or simply feel left out. This is especially important for all the kids in your house, but for the teens and adults, too.
3) Share responsibilities, and make them age-appropriate.
Assigning all of the “yucky” chores to one person will create resentment quickly. Instead, make sure that all family members participate in chores, and rotate them, always being sure they are age appropriate. For example, a 4-year old can’t be expected to clean a guinea pig cage, but she can line the bottom with newspaper and refill the water bottle.
4) DON’T tie the pets’ care to rewards or punishments for other behaviors.
Again, this is a recipe for resentment, especially if one child is always allowed to play with the pet, and one is not. For example, if your daughter refuses to eat her dinner, but your son gets an “A” on a test at school, play time with the pet is not an appropriate reward for your son, and requiring that your daughter clean the pet’s cage out of turn is not an appropriate punishment.
5) But DO require that kids do the “less fun” care to enjoy the “more fun” care.
The exception to the above rule would be if your daughter refused to help with the “yucky” chores when it was her turn. For example, if she refuses to refill the water bottle on her turn, it would be appropriate to NOT allow her to handle the animal that day. Children need to appreciate that it takes both kinds of chores to care for animals – the housekeeping as well as the handling.
6) Keep them interested (the pet AND your kids).
Just as children (and adults!) need new hobbies and routines to keep things interesting, so do companion animals. Introducing new games, toys, or training can be a great way to add dimension to your kids’ relationship with their pet. It might be a fun idea to keep a change jar for loose change, or ask your kids to put aside a small part of their allowance each week, so that once a month the pet can get a new toy. Choosing this item as a family can be a lot of fun. Encouraging your kids to learn as much as possible about the new pet is a great way to get them interested in all the facets of their care – maybe they can do a report on the animal for school, or help teach other kids about their pet.
A pet is a family responsibility, and its care should be shared. This is often forgotten when animals are given as gifts, especially to young children. Pets don’t make great gifts; they are a lot of work, and should be thought of as such so that there’s no confusion going forward. Similarly, they shouldn’t be treated as a reward or punishment – doing so will set the pet up for resentment as a child is expected to do more or less for an animal based on her own behavior in other parts of her life. Pets are not a great way to teach responsibility, but rather to practice it. And making their care a balance of (age-appropriate) responsibility and joy is a great way to do this.