Growing up in a house full of pets set the stage for many of my favourite childhood memories. We still tell stories about Dudley, the dog I had from kindergarten through my first year of university, and what a character he was. We talk about how our brilliant ginger cat Scamp would begrudgingly care for our less-than-sharp tuxedo cat, Otis, when he would find himself outwitted by things like countertops. Our beagle Barney saw my mother through the life-altering time recovering from cancer treatment, and was with us long enough for my oldest son to remember him.

My own two children cherish the cats we adopted when they were small and are forming their own memories of growing up with pets. There is no denying the value pets add to a home with small children – but before adding little Fifi or Fido to the family, there are important things to consider.

What Types of Pets are a Good Fit for a Family with Small Children?

Veterinarian Dr. Hazel Eaglesome of Blue Cross Animal Hospital recommends dogs, cats, or “pocket pets” such as hamsters, rabbits and guinea pigs as great options for young families.

What Types of Pets Should Be Avoided for Families with Small Children?

Dr. Eaglesome cautions against exotic animals and reptiles. “These are much more difficult to care for and may carry diseases that can be passed to children if the pet isn’t handled properly.”

What Should a Family Look for in a Potential Pet?

“The most important thing about any pet that is being brought into a household with children is that it have a very calm temperament,” says Dr. Eaglesome. “Make sure that the pet doesn’t seem nervous or shy around people, cowering or trying to hide. On the other hand It’s particularly important to make sure the pet you’re considering doesn’t show any kind of aggressive or dominating behaviour with your child.”

Some obvious signs to look for include:

  • Whining
  • Barking
  • Lunging
  • Pushing a small child
  • Teeth baring
  • Growling

Some signs a pet may not be a good fit for children are less obvious. Dr. Eaglesome suggests also looking for:

  • Yawning
  • Dilated pupils
  • Hair standing on end
  • Being hyper-alert (looking around constantly, seeming fearful)
  • Licking lips or drawing lips back
  • Holding the tail down, or high and tense over the back
  • Fidgeting (circling, barking, not able to settle)
  • Turning away when you look at them

The health of the animal is also an important consideration. Dr. Eaglesome recommends looking for obvious signs of ill-health such as lethargy, panting, or nasal discharge, and bringing the new pet to a veterinarian for a check-up as soon as possible. Get the pet’s vaccination and health records from the breeder or rescue.

Where Should Families Look for a Pet to Adopt?

Getting the pet from a reputable organization is paramount. “Never buy a pet at a pet store or from a Kijij seller,” says Dr. Eaglesome. “Many of the pets from these sources are raised in ‘mills’ and are unhealthy from the start.”

If you are looking for a specific breed or want to know the pet’s history from birth and its ancestry, breeders are an option. While more costly, this option allows you more insight into the animal’s background and lineage. Finding a breeder with a great track record and reputation is a must. Do research into the breeder to make sure they practice ethical breeding. Humane Canada offers an thorough guide for what to look for in potential breeders.

Adopting a rescue animal is also a great option, provided you go through a reputable organization. A good rescue organization will both know the animals they are placing for adoption, and screen potential adopters.

Our Adoption Experience

When we adopted our two cats from a rescue organization, the liaison was able to tell us the history of our cats (how they came to the rescue, how they had been cared for since, and info about one cat’s mother). She also knew our cats inside and out, from their temperaments, to their likes and dislikes, how they got along with other animals, with children, etc.

She also had a lot of questions for us. What was our family dynamic, what was our living situation (did we have a high balcony, for example), how had we prepared for adopting a pet, etc. She ensured we would not be allowing our cats outside, and that we would not be declawing them. She helped us with the dietary needs of our specific cats, showed us how to cut their nails, and had us fill out a good deal of paperwork. 

This vetting of us was done both for the welfare of the animals to make sure they would be cared for properly, and to make sure that these particular pets were a good fit for our family. There are plenty of wonderful pet owners, and plenty of wonderful pets, but a good fit is what’s most important. They even make sure that kittens go to families that have another cat, or are adopted with another cat (as we were doing) to ensure they have proper socialization. The process worked. These cats fit into our family like a dream.

Benefits of Adopting from Reputable Sources

Another benefit to going through a breeder or rescue organization is that often things like vaccinations, spaying or neutering, and microchipping are included in the fee. We paid an adoption fee for each of our cats, which covered a vet check-up, first vaccinations, deworming, spaying or neutering, microchipping, and six weeks of pet insurance. The fee we paid was far less than it would have been to cover these things out of pocket. A “free” pet is often more expensive than going through a rescue agency once you add the costs of responsible pet adoption.

Wherever you find your potential new pet, make sure you are allowed to spend time with the animal as a family before making the decision to bring them home so you can observe the animal and how they interact with you and your children.

What Should a Family Consider Before Getting a Pet?

The Blue Cross Animal Hospital offers a fantastic guide for things any potential pet owner should consider. These things include:

  • Ability to make a financial commitment
  • The size and set-up of your home
  • Your work schedule and the time commitment you will be able to make for your pet
  • Other pets in the house
  • The family dynamic (who are the people in your house?)
  • Travel plans or habits
  • The type and temperament of pet that would work best for you and your family

It is worth clicking the link to see these considerations in more detail before deciding to add a pet to your family.

What are Some Ways to Prepare Children for a New Pet?

“It’s important to emphasize that a pet is a living being, not a toy. The children must respect that or both the pet and the child are at risk,” says Dr. Eaglesome. 

Children must be taught to:

  • Touch the pet gently
  • Never startle a pet by touching it without warning
  • Don’t poke, pull, or grab the pet
  • Never, ever pull a pet’s tail (doing so can cause serious injury for a pet)
  • Don’t pick up the pet (resist the cuddle factor!)
  • Refrain from touching a pet while it is eating or feed a pet by hand

How Can a Family Make the Transition Easier for the Pet and the Children?

“The most important thing is to create boundaries between children and pets,” says Dr. Eaglesome. “Supervise your children carefully around your new pet.”

Dr. Eaglesome stresses the need to provide a designated space for the new pet to retreat to when it is feeling stressed. This place should include a bed, water, and for cats, a litterbox. Pets should not be bothered when in this space – make sure it is out of the way of household traffic, and strictly off-limits to children. Baby gates may be helpful to keep toddlers out of this space. 

Make sure children know to stay away from animals when they are eating. Even an animal with a calm temperament can become protective of their food and snap or swipe when they feel their food is threatened.

Is it Better to Adopt an Adult Pet or a Baby Pet?

Both have advantages, according to Dr. Eaglesome. Adopting a fully-grown animal allows you to see its fully-developed personality so there is less risk of surprises in the future, and a better ability to discern a fit for the family. Adopting a puppy or kitten means you can have a hand in raising them into adulthood. While some personality and temperament traits will already be set, you can control the environment in which they spend their formative years. Check out this valuable advice from Blue Cross Animal Hospital on how to kitten- and puppy-proof your home.

Bringing a pet into your family is a great way to help children learn empathy, responsibility, and caregiving. They bring love and companionship to children, and often a fun new playmate. But adopting a pet comes with a big commitment and a lot of responsibility. Before introducing an animal into your household (and a pet into your hearts), make sure everyone in your family is ready and prepared, including your children.

Heather M. Jones is a writer in Toronto and mom to two young boys. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, or her website.