Get Them a Critter

When the kids were 4 and 2, our fifteen year old cat, Bean, disappeared. He had been a part of the kids’ life since before they were born, and they missed him nearly as much as we did. Even though we are all experienced a deep heartache over his sudden disappearance, I will never regret having him as a member of our family. He gave us purrs, snuggles, laughter, headbutts, love, and unlimited access to his soft belly for rubs. Though the heartache of losing a member of our family is deep and real, I would never trade this experience for being a pet-free family, as I believe that having animals as companions is an essential part of growing up for children.

A newborn baby lays down on a couch with a cat behind them. Both appear to be sucking their "thumbs"
Bean teaches Viktor how to suck their dewclaw.

Here are just a few reasons why:

  • Empathy, compassion and kindness toward animals translate into empathy, compassion and kindness toward fellow humans. Learning to take care of and love an animal is essential for wiring a young brain to do the same for human beings who may need a little extra TLC in the future, such as younger siblings or friends, people with disabilities, the elderly, and, eventually, their own children.
  • Having a pet affords a certain amount of “controlled control” for a young person. They can put a leash on a dog and take it for a walk, or pick up their pet turtle and put it down somewhere else. They can decide when the animal will eat. They can call a cat and it may or may not come. These little tastes of being in charge can do wonders for a child’s self esteem and sense of worth in the world.
  • Pets can be a great icebreaker for a shy kid. Potential friends can be bonded with over the family hedgehog or adorable pup.
  • Having an animal die is a gentle introduction to death for young people. They are able to process their grief and take notes about what coping skills worked best for them. This is great practice for when a close friend or member of their family inevitably dies. I really feel that adults who never had pets as children have a much more difficult time dealing with loss.
A toddler with a pacifier hugs a small goat on a porch
Viktor comforts an ailing Devo.
  • Having a cat or dog can mean more movement for children. They are more interactive than a tv and can take kids outside for a game of fetch or tag, or just a walk around the yard. Even tossing a toy for a cat is better than holding perfectly still with passive entertainment.
  • Animals do a great job of serving as ambassadors for the planet’s non-human inhabitants. Kids who have pets living in their home are more likely to be interested in animals who live in the wild. They may be more likely to care for the well being of animals over the world and the habitats that they live in.
  • Pets are perfect companions for young people, who spend every minute of their first twenty years of life in constant emotional and mental flux. No matter what they are wearing, what their taste in music is, who they slept with, what their grades are like, or how they smell, a pet will not judge and will remain their faithful friend.
  • Watching a child interact with an animal can alert a parent to emotional, behavioral or psychological problems. Any child who bullies, tortures (or kills) an animal should be referred to a child or adolescent psychiatrist for an evaluation as quickly as possible, as this can be a sign of some very serious psychological or emotional issues.
A preteen uses the sink in a kitchen while a baby goat nibbles on their shorts
Sometimes it’s the critter doing the bullying.
  • Kids can take a cue from their pets, who let all of their flaws hang out, and still manage not to have self esteem issues. A chubby hamster, a cat with three legs, or a dog with alopecia don’t let their differences slow them down.
  • Study after study shows that stroking a pet’s fur will reduce stress and cause actual physiological changes in human beings. Being a child is inherently stressful. They can also make us laugh, which is another excellent stress-reliever.
  • Children can confide their secrets and private thoughts to their pets. This could be good practice for when they need to tell you something big and scary. Or it could just help them get some smaller scale miseries off of their chests.

Living on a farm with animals has even more perks; my kids have watched the circle of life in full swing. They’ve seen sex, pregnancy, birth, nursing, growth, illnesses, and death. They help the kids understand exactly where food comes from, and the difference between happy chickens (the ones who run around our backyard and eat bugs) and sad chickens (the ones crammed into tiny cages on trucks.)

A teen has a wild bird perched on their finger while sitting in their room and using their phone
We’ll be shocked if Viktor doesn’t end up working with animals when they’re an adult.

The Excuses:

  • “But I’m allergic!” — May I recommend a fish, a gecko, a turtle, or a snake? There are lots of excellent pets that aren’t known as common allergens.
  • “But they take so much time!” — More than having a child in the first place?  Try a “lower maintenance” pet, like hamsters, lizards, or smaller birds. Even cats generally take much less time in your day than most dogs.
  • “But they are so expensive!” — That’s true, they certainly can be! But there are less expensive alternatives to dogs, cats, and other large mammals.
  • “But pets make messes, lots of noise and smell bad!”  — Not all of them! Consider a snake, turtle, fish, lizard, or smaller mammal like a rabbit or guinnea pig.

Stuff to keep in mind:

  • Children under the age of three or four do not yet have good impulse control, and may act aggressively toward a pet if angry, or simply be too rough without understanding what the animal is able to physically tolerate.  This is not the fault of the child; this is just their brain developing. Please monitor your young ones with pets.
  • Do not assume that a kid under is going to be responsible enough to fully care for a pet on their own. It’s not likely to happen. Don’t adopt a pet with the assumption that it will solely be the responsibility of a young person. Adopt the animal into the family, and if a child takes interest in caring for it, consider the efforts of care a bonus. Quietly supervise the care and feeding of the animal, and be prepared to step in if necessary.
A teen wearing a cloth mask has a white rabbit on their shoulder
Viktor with a bunny friend at their school
  • Don’t yell at your kids if they become lax in taking care of the animal. Gently remind them that all animals need food, exercise, water, and love. Don’t forget that you are a role model, so demonstrate to your child how to care for an animal, and make sure that they understand what could happen if the animals stops receiving appropriate care. Don’t be afraid to find the animal a new home if it truly isn’t working out, but also don’t hold “We’re getting rid of Fluffy if you forget to feed her again” over the child’s head.
  • Before bringing a pet home, PLEASE research the care needed, as well as temperament and possible health issues. Don’t buy a sugar glider just because they are small and cute. Don’t get a cat if you like your furniture to be pristine. Don’t get a particular breed of dog just because the latest kids’ movie featured it. Look into all the species and breeds and find the ones that match your family and lifestyle the best.

Although we’re down a cat, we still have some fantastic critters gracing our home. We currently have three cats, a lovely mutt, an ancient Leopard Gecko, a ball python, and a couple of chickens. We’ve also had goats, alpacas, small mammals, and several other fowl and amphibians. I truly feel that our animal-y lifestyle only enriches the lives of our children, not to mention the adults of the house, and I suspect this will always be true.

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