The First Pet

The Obamas gripped the nation with their search for a family dog (they're looking to bring home a rescue Portuguese Water dog in April) and now your child wants a pet too. Caring for an animal teaches kids responsibility, nature, compassion, life and death. They also learn how to show affection, loyalty and engage in physical activities. But don’t rush to the nearest pet shop just yet.

“Before bringing a new pet into their home, parents should consider the needs of the entire household,” says Allison Cardona, Director of Disaster Response for ASPCA Community Outreach. Take time to think about your child’s age, the amount of time and responsibility required to care for an animal, and what type would be the best fit for you. But you don’t have to figure it out on your own. “The great thing about visiting an adoption center is that adoption counselors will work with you to determine the right match for your family and lifestyle,” Cardona adds.

To make sure you bring home an age-appropriate pet for your child, follow these suggestions from the ASPCA:

Infants and toddlers are too young to handle or care for a pet, but if you already own one then introduce the two and gradually let them get to know one another. Keep an eye out at all times to make sure your little one doesn’t yank on Fido’s tail while playing, mess with the litter box or dip her hands in the fish tank.

Three-to-five year olds will do best with a guinea pig. Not only will your child enjoy feeding it, but will also love that guinea pigs like being held – and rarely bite.

Five-to-ten year olds lose interest quickly and will fare better with gerbils and fish. While your child does chores like cleaning the cage, filling water bottles and measuring food, teach him the importance of good hygiene after handling pets.

Tweens can handle more responsibility so they’re ready for a dog, cat or rabbit. They can be relied on to feed and walk the pet and clean the litter box or cage. You should still make sure that the pet is being taken care of properly.

High school in and of itself is a major responsibility (what with class work, social drama and college apps), so teens might not devote as much time to the family furball. Birds and fish, which don’t require as much attention, would be a better fit for them.