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Sometimes, a child's best teacher is a loyal pet

Published Oct. 9, 2005

American families shelter about 120-million cats and dogs, plus millions of fish, birds, hamsters and gerbils. Pets play an important role in many households, providing families with affection, companionship and hours of fun. Equally important is the positive influence pets have on children. This special relationship between children and their companion animals can mean more than a game of "fetch" or a walk around the block. The family pet can teach a child a lot about love, life and growing up.

Pets can provide children important lessons about friendships. Animal companions give children their unconditional love _ a friendship that cannot be duplicated even by parents. Pets do not give kids a hard time and always take them at face value.

A pet doesn't care whether a child is clumsy in PE or is having trouble in math. This bond also provides the youngster with a safety net to help face everyday stress. Pets often serve as a sounding board for a child's feelings of loneliness, sadness and fear, and it is not uncommon to see a child talking to a pet, or even complaining to it. Children's bad days can easily be forgotten when a pet greets them at the door, wagging its tail or jumping into their arms. And many children cuddle with their pets to get through a loud, scary Florida thunderstorm.

Pets also can act as siblings for children. They are like a brother or sister who will never be the child's rival, and they accept their owners no matter how they are sometimes treated. When friends do not seem to have the time to play, children can always count on their pets to play a game of fetch the ball. For many children with working parents, the presence of a pet means that youngsters will not come home to an empty house.

Pets have another important role in a child's development. They often provide the first contact a child has with life's sad events _ illness, accidents and death. Parents can use these situations to teach children that a pet's illness could not be avoided, just as certain illnesses we get cannot be prevented. For many children, their first encounter with death occurs when a pet dies. Discussing death is a difficult topic for most parents, and the loss of a pet can give parents an opportunity to address this subject.

The relationship of children to their pets is so special that it has produced a new treatment known as pet therapy. By encouraging children to relate to pets, psychologists and psychiatrists have been able to help children and adults recover from emotional illness, build a healthy sense of self-esteem, assist a child in dealing with death or divorce, cope with learning disabilities and make chronic illness easier to bear.

Too many times, however, parents get their children a dog or cat in the belief that the pet will teach the child to become responsible. Children might promise to take care of a pet, but rarely are they able to do so properly.

It is safe to assume that a pet for a child means work for the parents, and the responsibility for the care of the animal must remain with the adult. Children younger than 6 or 7 cannot take care of themselves, let alone care for and feed a pet. Parents will make a big investment in time and work when they bring an animal home for their children.

When selecting a pet, families need to consider how much time and space they have. Pets should never be selected on impulse or as a gift during the holidays. Family budget, schedules, travel plans and lifestyle all need to be considered. In many cases, the choice of a goldfish or a small bird might be a good starting point for the family. These animals are a good way of introducing children to the world of animals,since they are mostly for watching rather than handling, and they require less care.

Breed selection is also important. Choose a pet that is gentle, both by breed and individual personality. A local veterinarian can provide parents with this useful information. Some animals should never be pets. Turtles, poisonous snakes, chimpanzees, skunks, ferrets and other usually wild animals bite and frequently carry disease. Furthermore, as this type of animal matures, it can become aggressive, and the family is then faced with the difficulty of placing their exotic pet in a new home. All pets should be checked by a veterinarian for disease, and family members should be certain they are not allergic to the pet before it is brought home.

Even if you do not have children, be a responsible pet owner. Do not keep an aggressive pet in a neighborhood where there are small children. Always protect neighborhood children by leashing or fencing your pet and obtaining the necessary immunizations.

Pets are members of the American family, and children and pets have always been a winning combination. A pet can give a youngster the chance to practice kindness, patience, consistency and regard for others. Children know their pets are never too busy to listen, will always hear them out and are extremely trustworthy. Listen to your children's conversations with their pets. The words will tell you what they like, fear, worry about and how they feel about themselves. The relationship between children and pets can be an important link between the children, their world and other human beings.

As a reminder, this column is being written to draw attention to the issues discussed. It should not be relied upon as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child's physician. Dr. Bruce A. Epstein has practiced pediatrics in St. Petersburg since 1973. He is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He is married and has three grown children.