Parent's Guide to Pets, A

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Pets are found in millions of American homes. If you don't already own a pet, at some point your child may ask for one. If you already own a pet, your child may want another one. So how do you decide?

The following is a guide from the American Academy of Pediatrics on how to choose a pet. There also is important information about how you can help prevent the spread of disease from animals, both at home and in public settings.

Ask your pediatrician at your child's next visit if you have any questions about a new pet or want to discuss disease prevention and pet safety.

Choosing a pet

Pet ownership can be a wonderful experience for children. It can teach responsibility, increase self-esteem, and prevent loneliness and, for some people, pets can even lower blood pressure and reduce stress. However, you should choose your pet carefully, especially if you have young children. Keep the following tips in mind when choosing a pet:

  • Consider your child's age and abilities. Some pets, like dogs or cats, need daily attention. They must be fed, groomed, cleaned up after, and exercised. Others, like fish, birds, guinea pigs, and hamsters, need less care and may be a good choice for an older child who needs to learn about what is involved in having a pet.

  • Choose a pet that is good for families with children. For instance, some dog breeds tend to be gentler with children, while other breeds may be more unpredictable in their behavior.

  • Keep in mind the type of pet you are considering. How big will it grow to be? What is involved in caring for the pet? Is your child allergic? How much will it cost to care for the pet? Will your child be able to handle the responsibilities of caring for the pet? How will the pet interact with other animals in the family?

  • Do not get a pet on an impulse. Just because that kitten looks cute in the pet store window or your neighbor is giving out free puppies does not mean it's the best pet for your family. Likewise, avoid giving your child a pet as a birthday or holiday gift unless careful consideration has gone into the selection.

  • Make choosing a pet a family decision. Talk about what type of pet each member of the family would like and who will be responsible for its care. Visit pet stores and rescue shelters together to see what types of animals your children like.

  • Do your research. Find out as much as you can about what is involved in taking care of a pet. Seek information at the library, on the Internet, or in pet guide books from your local bookstore. Talk with a veterinarian about which pets are good for families. Also, talk with friends and neighbors who own pets.

  • Buy pets only from reputable breeders and shelters. Otherwise you increase the risk of buying an ill or diseased animal. Also, if you are buying a purebred cat or dog, the pet store or breeder should have documents about where the animal came from and how it was bred. If you are getting an animal from a shelter, you should receive a certificate that shows the animal is healthy and has had all the necessary vaccinations.

About nontraditional pets

In addition to dogs and cats, more and more families are choosing other types of pets. In fact, the number of nontraditional animals kept as pets in the United States has increased 75% since 1992. Your child may want one of these animals as a pet after seeing them on television or in movies, reading about them in books, or learning about them in school. Your child may have even been in contact with these animals in the classroom, where they are often kept as class pets. However, before you choose one of these pets, it is important to be aware of some of the special health concerns related to some of them.

List of animals

All animals carry some risk to human health, even cats and dogs. Below is a list of animals with which your child may have contact at home or in a public setting that also carry risks to human health.

  • Amphibians—frogs, toads, newts, and salamanders

  • Reptiles—turtles, lizards, iguanas, snakes, and alligators

  • Rodents—mice, rats, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, chinchillas, gophers, lemmings, squirrels, chipmunks, prairie dogs, and hedgehogs

  • Members of the weasel family—ferrets, minks, sables, and skunks

  • Farm animals—cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep

  • Hooved animals—horses, mules, donkeys, and zebras

  • Wildlife mammals—rabbits, raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, tigers, lions, bears, monkeys, wallabies, and sugar gliders

Special health concerns

There are a number of reasons why these animals are a health concern, including

  • Many of these animals are not native to the United States. When exotic animals are imported to the United States (often illegally), they have been known to bring in diseases not currently seen in the United States.

  • Many of these animals are caught in the wild rather than bred in captivity. As a result, health screenings are often not done before they are shipped to the United States.

  • Often a variety of animal species are shipped together. If one animal is ill or a carrier of illness, it could spread the disease to the other animals.

  • Many of these animals are wild. They are not used to being around people, and most cannot be tamed. Even if they came from a pet store, it does not mean they make good pets.

It is very important to choose a pet wisely. Too often pet owners discover they are unable to care for the animal and then abandon or release it into the wild. This increases the risk of spreading disease and injury to people and other animals.

Pets and infections

Infections can spread from pets to humans from

  • Bites and scratches

  • Touching animal waste, saliva, or dander (skin, hair, or feathers shed from some animals)

  • Pests on the animal that carry diseases, such as ticks and fleas

Just because an animal does not appear to be sick does not mean it does not carry disease. For example, all reptiles can spread Salmonella bacteria that can cause serious diarrhea and other disease complications.

Infants and children younger than 5 years are at greatest risk of getting sick from animals. This is because they are not as able to keep their hands as clean as older children can. Also, their immune systems are still developing, so infections tend to be more severe. Children with certain immune system problems need to be especially careful around animals. Reptiles, amphibians, rodents, ferrets, and baby birds (including chicks and ducklings) should be kept out of households that contain children younger than 5 years, people with immune system problems, or people with sickle cell disease.

Safety and health tips

Use the following guidelines to keep diseases from spreading from your pets to your children:

  • Make sure everyone in the family washes his or her hands after touching any animal, its food, or its environment (cage, litter box, or tank). Children younger than 5 years will need extra help with this to make sure they are getting their hands clean.

  • Avoid rough play with animals to prevent scratches or bites.

  • Do not allow pets in areas of your home where you prepare or eat food.

  • Do not share food with a pet.

  • Do not allow your children to kiss pets on the mouth. Also, be sure children learn not to put their hands into their mouths after touching their pets.

  • Do not empty aquarium water into any sinks used to prepare food. Use disposable gloves when cleaning fish aquariums.

  • Keep your pet healthy with regular visits to the veterinarian. Keep your pet free of fleas and ticks.

  • Never bring wild animals home, and never adopt wild animals as pets.

  • Do not let pets like reptiles, amphibians, rodents, and baby birds roam freely throughout your home.

  • Teach children to never pet animals that they don't know or any wild animals, even if the animals appear friendly. Even ones they do know can be unpredictable. For example, children should be taught to never take the cookie out of the mouth of the family dog. Dogs treat children like a member of the pack and can be very aggressive with children who they view as their peers rather than their leaders.

  • Teach children to never touch a dead animal that they may find anywhere, including in a park or the woods.

Safety and health tips in public settings

Children may come in contact with animals in a variety of public places such as

  • Zoos (including petting zoos)

  • County or state fairs

  • Farm or livestock exhibits

  • Rodeo events

  • Pet or feed stores

  • Fish tanks in offices, restaurants, or schools

While these interactions can be a great way for children to learn about animals and the world around them, they can also increase the risk of illness and injury. When taking your child to see animals in a public place make sure

  • Animals are in cages or on leashes at all times.

  • Food is not allowed in the same area with animals.

  • Children are supervised when with the animals, especially if they are allowed to touch them. Note: Unless you know that animals are screened and safe, children should not be allowed to touch mammals at high risk of rabies such as bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and coyotes.

  • Children are able to wash their hands after touching the animals.