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Pets teach children lessons but require time, devotion
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- A pet can teach children important life lessons, but parents must decide if their family has the time and devotion to raise one.
Micki Smith, a child and family development agent with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said parents may be amazed at the qualities children develop from owning a pet.
"Whether it's a fish, bird, dog or cat, pets can help children develop lifelong character traits, such as responsibility, compassion, empathy and the ability to love unconditionally," Smith said.
The unconditional love offered by a family pet can help children develop positive self-esteem, Smith said. Children also can develop a sense of responsibility and confidence through caring for a pet.
"Knowing a pet depends on him or her helps develop a child's accountability and conscience," Smith said. "Caring children learn to bring a pet inside when the weather is bad. They learn that their pet depends on them to fill the water and food bowls. They learn that a pet left alone all day needs to romp and run with them when they get home from school."
Children can learn that pets need to be treated respectfully and that all living things have feelings. They learn that animals get hungry, thirsty and tired.
"Like people, sometimes animals feel like playing, and sometimes they don't. Children also learn that pets can be scared by loud noises, just as they are sometimes scared by something unexpected," Smith said.
Although children are usually the receivers of care, Smith said having a pet puts the child in the position of caregiver. Children learn to recognize and respond to their pet's needs, such as when the pet needs to be played with, fed or walked.
Pets can teach children to accept life cycles as a real part of life.
"The declining health or death of a pet is often the first time children face the reality of mortality," Smith said. "The loss of a pet helps the child learn that life does end at some point, no matter how much we wish it were not true. Through the grieving process, children learn that love is not lost if they hold memories close."
Key to creating a lasting family-pet bond is choosing a pet that fits into the family's lifestyle. Dr. Mark Russak, a veterinarian at the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine's Primary Care Clinic, said where a family lives and children's temperaments are important factors to consider.
"The best thing to do is speak with a veterinarian or a good dog trainer to find out what types of breeds you should consider," Russak said. "For example, you don't want to mix very active children with an aggressive-breed dog."
Families must commit to giving dogs an appropriate amount of exercise each day. Russak recommends a bare minimum of 30 minutes each day of interactive time with pets, throwing a ball or walking around the neighborhood.
"Dogs will need to be taken outside and walked no less than four times a day to use the bathroom. They also will need to be fed once or twice each day, groomed, bathed and combed," Russak said. "All these things take up time."
Cats may not require as much attention, but Russak said owners still should set aside some play time each day. Consider getting cats in pairs so they can play with each other and get out some of their energy and aggression.
"If you have children, you obviously don't want to get a dog or cat with any history of aggression," Russak said.
In addition to the time and energy of raising a pet, Russak said families should plan to spend at least $200 to $300 on health maintenance expenses during the first year of a puppy's life.
"The first year is usually the most costly, with vaccinations, deworming, preventative medications and spaying or neutering. If you're not willing to keep up with these expenses, you really shouldn't get a pet," Russak said. "It's a commitment every year of buying heartworm prevention medications, flea and tick medications, and other expenses including food."
Russak strongly recommends families enroll puppies in training classes, which teach the owner how to train his or her dog.
"Families with a lifestyle that would not allow enough time for a dog or cat should consider a low-maintenance pet such as fish, gerbils or hamsters," Russak said.
Contact: Micki Smith, (601) 859-2672 or Dr. Mark Russak, (662) 325-3432