There is nothing more precious than watching your children interact and play with a beloved family pet. Whether it’s a bouncy kitten or a cuddly cocker spaniel, you want to ensure that your children are safe in the presence of a family pet.
Unfortunately, not all animals respond well to the often active and energetic nature of children. Choosing the safest pet for your child means considering the risks that come with different animals before you pick out a new addition for your family.
Your child may be intrigued by a slithering snake at the zoo, but until he is older, avoid adding any reptiles as the family pet, recommends Sujatha Ramakrishna, pediatric psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids Who Love Animals. This means hold off on purchasing turtles, lizards, snakes and frogs while your children are young.
According to Ramakrishna, many reptiles carry salmonella bacteria, which cause life-threatening illnesses in young children. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control advises that children under five completely avoid direct contact with all kinds of reptiles. Even for older children, careful hand washing after handling reptiles is essential.
Pocket pets, such as hamsters, guinea pigs and gerbils, also carry salmonella, says Ramakrishna. “These animals do not like being handled and often bite children,” she says.
“Toddlers and infants should never be left alone with any kind of animal,” says Ramakrishna. “Any pet is dangerous for kids if parents don’t properly supervise their interactions and educate their children about the proper way to handle and care for their non-human family member.”
Although pets teach responsibility, nurturing and assertiveness to children, parents must be choosy when determining a good fit for the entire family.
Ferrets have become a popular family pet in recent years, but parents and nannies should be leery of the risks of adopting this furry friend as a member of the family when children are small. These cute little critters have a significant incident history of biting young children, more than dogs and other species, according to Bruce Coston, Virginia-based veterinarian and author of The Gift of Pets.
“It appears that they are more likely to attack when they smell milk on the breath of a youngster,” says Coston. “The increase in bite risk is significant.”
Beyond the risk of biting, many pets, like reptiles, can spread disease and infection or trigger allergies. In addition to reptiles and ferrets, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents with children under the age of 5 avoid the following animals as pets:
- reptiles (turtles, snakes, lizards, iguanas)
- rodents (hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, chinchillas, hedgehogs, prairie dogs, mice, rats)
- amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders)
- baby poultry (chicks, ducklings, goslings, turkeys)
- illegal exotic animals
In addition to illegal exotic animals, Coston advises against wild species, such as raccoons and wolf hybrids. It is likely that a pet raccoon could be a carrier of intestinal parasites that are fatal for humans, says Coston. “Wild species can become aggressive without warning and can have personality changes as they mature,” he says. “This includes wolf hybrids – which seldom make good pets and should never be a pet in a household with children.
Even though your family may crave originality, when your children are young, it is often a better choice to stick with the basics, such as puppies and kittens. Primarily, do your research before bringing home the family’s new addition.
Parenting experts at Nemours KidsHealth recommend parents and nannies do the following before determining the best pet for the family:
- Read pet guides explaining the various personalities, tendencies and backgrounds of specific breeds in detail. For example, some dog breeds (such as certain terriers or Chihuahuas) are known for their feistiness and are considered less tolerant of kids — especially if they aren’t raised with kids from puppyhood. Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers, on the other hand, have excellent reputations as family-friendly dogs. Also look around for guides (at your local bookstore, on the Internet, or at animal shelters) that explain how to take care of different kinds of pets. If you’re interested in rabbits, the House Rabbit Society is an excellent resource and offers printed materials on rabbits and rabbit care.
- Set up a consultation visit with a veterinarian to talk about what you’re looking for in a pet and to ask questions.
- If you’re thinking about buying a dog from a pet store, first ask where they get their dogs and puppies. Some pet stores purchase dogs from “puppy mills,” where they may be poorly bred and, therefore, may have physical and/or behavioral problems. It’s often better to buy a dog from a private breeder or adopt one from an animal shelter.
- Ask neighbors and friends about their experiences with various kinds of pets.