Selecting Safe Pets
May 12, 2004, KidsHealth.org

Pets love us unconditionally. They're also great for our health - mentally and physically. Caring for pets boosts self-esteem, prevents loneliness, and even lowers heart rate and blood pressure in some people.
Growing up with a pet can be a wonderful experience for children. But keep in mind that although the experience gives kids a sense of responsibility, only adults can be truly responsible for a pet. Selecting the right pet is a serious decision that your family members should make together. Before you choose a pet, take the time to read our article for tips and suggestions.

Before You Select a Pet
A common mistake is bringing home a pet on an impulse - without fully understanding the level of commitment involved. For instance, lots of people buy bunnies at Easter time without giving a thought to the 5- to 10-year commitment they'll be making to the animal and what that commitment will mean to the family. That's why it's important to talk to all family members and discuss expectations and responsibilities. Talk about how much care the pet will require and what role each family member plans to play. Things to consider include who will feed and groom the pet, and who will clean its living space.

Also anticipate the pet's medical and exercise needs. Consider how big your pet will grow and make sure you have enough space. Cats, birds, rabbits, and other small animals can generally adapt to any space, but dogs need lots of room to run and jump. Do you have a yard? Who will walk the dog regularly? Who will bathe and groom him? Take a realistic look at the lifestyle of your family members. If you work long hours and the kids stay after school for soccer practice, who will care for the pet in your absence? What if you travel a lot - what will you do with your pets then?

Experts also recommend finding out about infectious diseases a pet could carry. Dogs and cats may easily pick up ticks or bugs while they are outside. Ticks can carry diseases such as Lyme disease, so be sure to consider your geographical location and the possibility of ticks before you make a pet choice.

You may also want to factor the medical histories of family members into your choice of a pet. If your child has a history of allergies, talk to your child's doctor about the possibility of pet allergy tests, suggests Kate Cronan, MD, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist, in order to determine ahead of time whether your child will be allergic to certain pets.

Are Some Pets Dangerous?
Although the animals your children see in the woods or parks may be cute to look at, they can be dangerous as pets - they aren't used to being around people and they may carry diseases that can be transmitted to your child. "Wild animals aren't acceptable as pets, even if you get them when they're babies," says Dr. Leslie Sinclair, DVM, director of veterinary issues for companion animals at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). People mistakenly believe they can domesticate an animal, she says. Teach your children to stay away from animals in the wild, and that they should never touch, feed, or try to take an animal home with them.

Just because you can buy a pet from the pet store doesn't mean it's safe for homes with children. Animals that aren't child-safe include hedgehogs, prairie dogs, ferrets, chinchillas, monkeys, and reptiles such as turtles, snakes, lizards, and iguanas. Many people don't realize that reptiles transmit salmonella, a kind of bacteria, through their feces. "Reptiles live in their feces, so they have bacteria all over their skin," Dr. Sinclair explains.

The salmonella bacteria are transmitted through direct contact with reptiles or by touching surfaces and people who have had contact with reptiles. Pet reptiles are an especially bad idea if anyone in your house faces greater health risks from a salmonella infection, such as infants and elderly people. If you are seriously considering having a reptile as a pet, check with your family doctor or veterinarian for special precautions that should be taken, such as handwashing procedures.

Do Your Research
HSUS recommends you stick with traditional, domesticated animals, such as cats and dogs. Rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, birds, and fish are other common, child-friendly pets.

Many pet guides explain the various personalities, tendencies, and backgrounds of specific breeds in detail.

For example, some breeds (such as certain terriers or chihuahuas) are known for their fiestiness, and are generally considered less tolerant of children - especially if not raised with kids from puppyhood. Golden retrievers and labradors, on the other hand, have excellent reputations for being family- friendly dogs. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and any animal may scratch or bite if put in a dangerous situation. Tapping into books and other resources to learn about animals is a smart idea, but be careful about labeling certain animals or breeds as unquestionably safe.

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