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A pet for your child

The right pet can be a great addition to your family. But take the time to choose the right animal and to teach your child to behave properly around it.

Pairing kids with pets is almost an American tradition. They seem to go together—like peanut butter and jelly, or green grass and summer.

A pet can be an instant best friend for a child. Caring for a pet can also be a great way for your child to learn responsibility and valuable lessons about respecting other living creatures.

But it's important to take the time to choose the right pet for your family. You also need to teach your child the right way to act around the animal.

Choosing a pet

The type of pet you add to your family's life might depend on your lifestyle.

Dogs. There are big dogs and little dogs. Some breeds need more exercise than others. And some breeds tend toward aggression.

Do some research on breeds before deciding on a dog, suggests the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). Talk to a veterinarian or other animal expert.

Although a puppy can be a great choice for a young child, it can also take a lot of your time and energy.

If you pick an older dog, look for one used to being near kids.

The whole family should spend time with the dog before choosing it. If your child seems fearful around it, he or she might not be ready for a dog.

Cats. Much of the same advice for dogs applies to cats as well. For example, you might want to research the temperament of different breeds before you choose a cat. However, a kitten is less work than a puppy. And a cat doesn't need a yard.

Other choices. If space is a problem, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) suggests caged animals, such as rabbits, hamsters or guinea pigs. Kids may also like an aquarium of colorful fish.

But avoid baby chickens, ducklings, reptiles and amphibians, advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They can transmit illnesses such as salmonella. CDC says that kids younger than 5 years should avoid contact with them.

Training pets and kids

Both your child and your new pet may need a little training to help their friendship flourish.

You'll need to teach your child that a pet is not a toy, for example, and that he or she should not:

  • Hit, tease or play roughly with it.
  • Pull on its ears or tail.
  • Startle it with sudden noises.
  • Disturb it when it's sleeping or eating.

If you get a dog, you might want to teach it submissive behavior, advises CDC, such as:

  • Rolling over to expose its belly.
  • Giving up food or toys without growling.

Talk to your vet right away about any behaviors that concern you.

Preventing problems

When it comes to animals and kids, parents probably worry most about illness and injury.

Kids younger than 5 years are more likely than others to get diseases from animals, notes CDC. In part, that's because they tend to put things in their mouths, like dirty fingers.

To help prevent illness, try to keep your child's hands out of his or her mouth when around animals. Wash your child's hands well afterward.

Younger children are also the most common victims of dog bites, according to the AAFP. Most of these bites aren't serious. But if a bite breaks the skin, call your doctor. If the dog isn't yours, find out its vaccination history.

Teach your child never to approach a strange dog. And never leave your child alone with any dog, not even your own.

Talk to your doctor

Ask your doctor if he or she has any advice about pets and toddlers. A veterinarian is another good source of information.

Reviewed 2/3/2023

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