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Barack Obama used the promise of a pet as a bargaining tool with his daughters during his successful election campaign. Yet, the decision on what dog to take to the White House has arguably been his ‘biggest’ decision to date – a Labradoodle or a Portuguese waterhound puppy? "This has been tougher than finding a Commerce Secretary” he told ABC’s This Week programme . . .

Many of us were probably faced with the same pleas this Christmas past but how long can you make excuses for not having a pet? Oliver Nicholas looks at the decisions that need to be considered.

Should you say yes?

The decision to allow a child to have a pet is a difficult one particularly as, no matter what promises your child makes you, the responsibility for the animal will rest ultimately with you. So, the real question is whether you are personally committed to looking after it and whether your lifestyle will not prevent you from doing so?

What are the benefits?

There have been many scientific and sociological experiments over the years proving the benefits of pet ownership for children. Research has shown that children’s physical health can benefit from close contact with pets. Doctors are still exploring the “hygiene hypothesis” – of whether exposure of children to microbes, for example, from animals, makes them less susceptible to allergies. Interestingly, there have been a number of recent studies which have shown a link between pet ownership in childhood and the reduction in the occurrence of asthma, eczema and hayfever.

Psychologist, Dr June McNicholas, of Warwick University has also conducted studies that show children who own pets have more stable antibody levels than those without pets, indicating a more robust immune system. Her findings have been backed up by subsequent observations that children with pets took fewer sick days off school than those without pets. In addition, Australian University research has shown that children between the ages of 5 and 12 years who had a dog were 50% less likely to be overweight or obese compared with those who did not own a dog.

Whilst it may seem a great idea to buy a young child a rabbit, for instance, because it seems docile and fluffy, they are, in fact, quite fragile animals that cannot cope with the inadvertent rough handling of a younger child

Head researcher, Professor Jo Salmon says: “For parents who are trying to get their kids off the computer or switching off the TV and getting out and playing, having a pet might be a really good strategy for doing that.” Not only walking the dog but just playing around with the dog at home seemed to make a marked difference.

The physical act of touching, stroking and cuddling pets in itself is also commonly known as a stress buster, lowering heart rates and reducing blood pressure for children and adults alike.

The social and psychological benefits of pet ownership are perhaps easier to see in your child. Owning a pet teaches children empathy towards others and can improve social skills. This is highlighted by Dr Sue Doescher, a psychologist involved in studies since the 1990s at Oregon State University, USA, who notes that pet ownership: “made the children more cooperative and sharing. Having a pet improved children’s role-taking skills because they have to put themselves in the pet’s position and try to feel how the pet feels and that transfers to how other kids feel.’’

Children who own pets have more stable antibody levels than those without pets, indicating a more robust immune system

Children with pets also appeared to have a better ability to understand non-verbal communication. Daily contact and responsibility also improved children’s self-confidence. These are clearly essential skills in life that can be transferred by your child to their relationships with other children.

Having pets also makes children more cooperative and sharing, able to empathise, whilst improving selfconfidence; essential skills in relationships with others. Animals are renowned as great companions for their offering of unconditional love and acceptance, being both playmates and sympathetic listeners, hence the use of animals to assist sick patients in hospitals, children suffering behavioural difficulties, autism, or for dealing with the effects of trauma and in therapy.

What pet to get?

Once the decision has been made to have a pet, the most difficult part is often what type of animal to choose. There are a number of important things to consider:


– is often something that is overlooked. The cost of the animal itself, any equipment required for the animal (such as dog beds, hamster cages etc), the continuing cost of keeping the animal fed, veterinary bills and insurance are all factors that need to be researched at the outset before making your choice. Pet insurance provider, Intune, has calculated that the average cost of keeping a dog over its lifetime is now £13,000. Average costs of keeping a cat over the same period is now over £10,000. 

Your child’s age

 – is a vital factor to consider when you are choosing a pet. Whilst it may seem a great idea to buy a young child a rabbit, for instance, because it seems docile and fluffy, they are, in fact, quite fragile animals that cannot cope with the inadvertent rough handling of a younger child. A young child may find the concept of death a difficult one to deal with. It may not, therefore, be sensible to buy a young child a hamster or gerbil that will have a very short lifespan. (Although having to understand about the death of a loved one or dealing with the grief process at some stage during childhood is often considered an important learning experience.)

Your child’s personality

– whilst your child may have their heart set on having a particular pet, they may not in reality have any concept of what care is involved. The worst thing that can happen is for your child to get bored with the pet as you will end up looking after it. A quiet and calm child may not be able to cope with a bounding young puppy or energetic older dog, whilst an inquisitive scientifically minded child may get bored easily with a kitten but a reptile or exotic fish may inspire them in their learning.

If your child is desperate for a horse it might be a good plan to get them to show that they can really look after it before you incur huge bills by volunteering to help at the local stables with the care of the horses, feeding, mucking out and cleaning before and after school. This will soon reveal whether your child is completely committed! Links are provided below to pet selector web questionnaires which are a useful start to understand personalities and backgrounds of breeds of different animals.


– Is there space to keep your chosen pet safely and comfortably in your home? Birds should not be kept close to kitchens and many small rodents are nocturnal and can be disruptive to your sleep if kept in a bedroom. You must also take a realistic look at the amount of time that your family can spare for the care and training of a pet. Pets such as puppies and kittens will takeup a lot of your time so are clearly not suited to families where both parents work long hours, but a low maintenance pet such as a fish would. You should think about how your family spends its time together and choose a pet accordingly.

Exotic Pets

Extra consideration should be given if thinking about the more unusual pet. Reptiles like turtles, snakes, lizards, iguanas, rodents including hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, chinchillas, hedgehogs, mice and rats, amphibians such as frogs, toads and salamanders, and ferrets can all be alternatives to the common cats, dogs and rabbits. In the US, where the number of exotic pets has increased by 75% since 1992, a report for the American Academy of Paediatrics advised that children under the age of 5 should not keep hedgehogs, baby chicks, and reptiles as pets.

Dr Pickering, paediatrician and infectious disease specialist, highlighted that the salmonella bacteria can be found in reptiles and baby chicks: “With adequate supervision and precautions such as hand-washing, contact between children and animals is a good thing, but families should wait until the children are older before buying an exotic pet.”

Cows, sheep, pigs, chicken and goats are a fantastic way for children to understand the reality of farming and where our food comes from. However, they do not have places to rest or eat that are away from where their manure and can potentially carry the E-coli and Salmonella bugs. Wild animals are unpredictable and may carry diseases so be wary of touching or feeding them, as much for their safety as for your children’s.


Awareness of health issues must be taken seriously but by following simple measures the benefits can far outweigh potential problems. Infections can be passed from common domestic animals. This is rare but can occur. The most direct way for infections to pass is by being bitten, or by close contact with their poo.

Such infections include:

  • Ringworm – a fungal infection of the skin
  • Toxocariasis – an infection caused by worms in dog and cat poo
  • Toxoplasmosis – a parasite found in cat poo

Good pet hygiene reduces this risk, so:

  • Don’t let pets sleep on beds
  • Wash hands with soap and water after handling animals
  • Don’t touch their poo and stay away from litter trays and dog litter bins
  • Wash bites and scratches straight away with soap and water or antiseptic
  • Check that tetanus immunisations are up to date if bitten badly
  • Make sure pets have had the full necessary vaccinations and have regular check-ups at the vets
  • Keep your pet’s fur clean, clean their paws and shampoo them if they have been swimming in ponds, for example

Safety for your children

For children to gain the sociological benefits from a pet they must learn from observation the correct behaviour in how to treat the pet. Unfortunately, it is not enough to simply buy your child a pet and expect them to benefit. It is necessary to become actively involved in teaching your child how to look after it.

Teach children the following:
  • Wash hands after handling pets
  • Handle and pick up pets, without squeezing them too tight, dropping them or picking them up too fast
  • When approaching strange animals or friend’s animals ask the owner permission before stroking it
  • Understand and recognise danger signs such as growling. Any animal may scratch or bite if it feels that it is cornered or in a dangerous situation
  • Do not tease or play with animals whilst they are eating, sleeping or if they are looking after their young
  • Do not put faces close to animals’ faces, claws or snatch a toy or bone away from them
  • Be aware that loud noises, screaming, poking eyes and pulling tail or ears can be annoying to animals 
  • Don’t leave an infant or toddler alone with a pet. Cats love the warmth of babies and babycots so think about catnets if out in the garden.

Finally, do your research and make sure you buy from reputable breeders or pet shops or consider visiting a rescue home and talking to experts there.


According to the pet advice website, Saferpets, some dog breeds that are good for families include:

Shih-Tzu – full of infectious, extrovert enthusiasm, intelligent, fun companions although they can be independent and willful too!

Pug – friendly, affectionate character which may suffer in humidity and heat, due to their short faces. Despite their small size, they are not snappy or nervous like many toy breeds and are low maintenance (minimal grooming and exercise).

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel – energetic playmate with loving nature who will adapt to any lifestyle but needs regular exercise and grooming of its long, silky coat. Heart disease is a problem in this breed

Border Terrier – a compact, robust, short-coated dog that’s great for families with active children. Good watchdogs although terrier-characteristics have to be kept in check, such as digging

Beagle – happy, sociable, ideal family dogs although not the easiest to train as, being a scent hound, they become obsessed once they pick up a scent trail and will ignore all commands

Staffordshire Bull Terrier – a powerful, muscular dog which is nevertheless tolerant and affectionate with children and devoted to its family. Highly intelligent and fearless, it can be slightly combative with other dogs if not well-socialised from young.

Cocker Spaniel – sensitive, affectionate and intelligent little dog which requires some grooming and a fair amount of exercise. They have keen hunting instincts and can be strong-willed.

Labrador/Golden Retriever – good-natured and eager to please, the Lab’s love of water can be a nuisance as it will find any puddle available; they both also enjoy retrieving and carrying things around. Labs are energetic and require a lot of exercise but also adore food. The Golden has a longer coat which needs more grooming.

Giant breeds, such as the Newfoundland, St Bernard and Great Dane – renowned for their placid natures and gentle tolerance of children - however, they have a lengthy period as huge,clumsy, boisterous puppies and as such, are generally unsuitable for households with young children.

Doberman Pinschers, Dalmatians, and Great Danes – grow to be more than 50 pounds. Bites from large dogs can also do more damage. Avoid dogs specifically bred to be aggressive fighters such as Pit Bulls and Rottweilers.

Certain terriers and Chihuahuas – known to be potentially aggressive, snappy and less tolerant of children especially if they haven’t lived with children from puppyhood.

LINKS – a valuable starting point for research into choosing a pet for your child – an internet forum which also has very useful factsheets about pet related issues – looks at the safety aspects of children and pet ownership – CBBC factsheets for children about the care and upkeep of different animals
– cat and dog breed selector questionnaire and information on breeds
– Battersea dogs home with usual information on breeds and rescue dogs and cats