Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Pet Care Is Not Child's Play

Pet Column for the week of June 20, 2011

Related information:

Related site - Behavior Services at the Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Brittany Way
Information Specialist

"Pleeeeeeze, Mom and Dad! I promise to feed him and walk him and keep the yard cleaned up and everything! Please can I have a dog?"

We've all heard of situations in which a child and her parents overestimate the child's ability to take responsibility for a pet, and before you know it, mom and dad are the ones feeding, walking, and cleaning up after the new pet.

Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine, acknowledges that pets can bring much joy and comfort to children and can even help children learn responsibility. As a veterinarian with a special interest in animal behavior, Dr. Ballantyne cautions parents that the responsibilities of pet ownership--especially of a young pet that needs basic socialization and behavioral training--can be too large for a child to handle.

Two important factors to take into consideration are the temperament of the pet and the maturity of the child. The feeding and exercise of a pet may seem easy, but often children get caught up in other activities and forget their obligations. It's important that the adults ensure, especially in the beginning, that the child is adequately caring for the pet.

Dr. Ballantyne recommends that families wait until the youngest child is around five years old before acquiring a puppy. The competing demands on time and energy for raising pre-schoolers and training pets can be overwhelming, and the pet may end up being neglected.

Training of pets is essential for maintaining a happy household. Behavioral problems are a leading reason that pets are relinquished to shelters, and very often the problems could have been prevented with appropriate training. Parents must model appropriate training techniques so their children learn what to do and what not to do with the pet.

For example, the pet's positive behaviors should be rewarded, while unacceptable behaviors should never be reinforced. If you show your puppy that you are amused when she tugs on your pant leg, don't be surprised when the dog later destroys your good suit.

Dr. Ballantyne recommends clicker training because it can be used on any type of pet and children can very easily participate in the training. But please do not leave the training of your pet solely to your children. Raising and training a pet is a time-consuming activity. With education and patience, pet ownership can become a family affair that forges lasting bonds of love.

For more advice about children and pets, please contact your local veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist.