What to Expect When Your Kid's Expecting a Pet (But You're Not Ready)

So you promised your child a pet for his birthday, or for Christmas, or if she did a particularly difficult chore, and forgot about it. Of course, the kid didn’t, and now you’re on the hook, but aren’t sure you’re really ready for a new family pet. It’s not an uncommon predicament, and today we’ll explore how you can handle this situation without disappointing your child or taking on a committment for which the family isn’t ready.

First, it’s important to figure out whether or not your family really is prepared for a new pet. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does everyone in the family want the new pet?
  • Do all adults in the home understand that any pet should be the primary responsibility of an adult, even if a child helps to care for the animal?
  • Is your family financially able to provide for a new pet?
  • Has your child shown an interest in learning about how to care for the type of pet he or she wants?
  • Has your child been exposed to pets and demonstrated that he or she can treat them gently and kindly?
  • Is your living situation likely to remain stable enough to accomodate the new pet’s needs for its entire lifespan?
  • Have you researched responsible options for acquiring a new pet, such as adoption or purchasing from a reputable hobby breeder?
  • Are you prepared with a nest egg and a contingency plan in case of emergency vet bills?
  • Do you know how to care for the type of pet your child wants?
  • Are you and all members of the family committed to keeping this pet for life?

If you can answer “yes” to each question, your family is likely ready to take the next step to adding a new pet. If not, take a step back, and ask yourself why you answered “no” to one or more questions. When you’ve got your thoughts in order, discuss the sticking point with your child, honestly and using language he or she can understand.

Not everyone in the family wants a new pet– Explain that a family makes decisions together. Admit fault for making a promise before making sure everyone in the family was on board, and apologize. If it’s a sibling who doesn’t want a new pet, suggest a family meeting to discuss the sibling’s objections. If it’s a parent or other responsible adult in the household, explain that adults have the final say in these decisions, and that you’ll revisit the matter later if the other adult’s opinion changes.

One or more adults in the household expect that a child will take primary responsibility for the pet– This is an unrealistic goal when adding a pet to the family. Some children are unusually responsible and able to do most of the chores involved in pet care, while others will lose interest quickly as they grow and develop. It’s a pleasant surprise to have a child who bonds closely with a pet and takes full responsibility for its care, but expect that your child will need assistance and supervision with most tasks. In addition, a child can’t pay vet bills, drive a dog to obedience classes, or walk a puppy at four in the morning. Resolve this issue between the adults in the household before discussing it with the child, and, if necessary, explain that the family is not ready to take responsibility for a new member yet.

The family is not financially able to provide for a new pet– This is difficult to explain to children, but also presents a teaching opportunity. Talk about responsibility and living within one’s means, and, with older children, discuss consequences of spending irresponsibly. Make a plan as a family to reconsider the expenses associated with pet ownership in six months or a year.

Your child hasn’t shown an interest in learning about the type of pet he or she wants– Talk about what it means to make a lifetime commitment to an animal, and how much work its care might be. Some children will decide at this point that they don’t want a pet after all! Suggest volunteering together at an animal shelter or going to a summer camp where animal husbandry is taught, in order to see if the child really wants the work and responsibility of pet ownership. It may be that your child will realize he or she would really rather spend that time joining a Little League team or taking Gymnastics classes, rather than dedicating time to cleaning cages or walking a dog.

Your child either has not been exposed to pets or doesn’t treat them kindly– If a lack of exposure to pets is the problem, arrange to volunteer together for an animal shelter, attend a pet show, or walk the neighbor’s dogs several times before evaluating whether or not your child is mature enough to coexist with a pet. Read together about safety around pets. If your child has been exposed to pets but wasn’t kind to them, explain that every pet deserves love and gentle treatment, and discuss how he or she can demonstrate maturity and readiness to be kind to a pet. Make a timeline and talk about specific goals like learning to count to ten instead of hitting when angry, and with very young children, practice gently stroking a stuffed animal.

Your living situation may not remain stable– Maybe your child is a teen and preparing for college in a few years, or you are concerned that you might be transferred to another state by your employer. If you aren’t sure you’ll remain able to care for a pet for the lifespan of that pet, it’s not a good time to add a family member. Explain this honestly to your child, and talk about pets that don’t live as long or are easier to take along when moving. Perhaps your child wanted a puppy, but would be just as happy with a pair of gerbils or firebelly toads.

You haven’t researched responsible options for acquiring a pet– Don’t just purchase a pet from the petstore. You’ll be supporting irresponsible mill breeding, and you may buy a sick pet or a pet with a hereditary illness. There’s a reason pet stores often offer only a fourteen day guarantee on live animals; many live less than a month after purchase! Involve the whole family in locating a reputable breeder or an animal rescue, and take the opportunity to teach your children about choosing responsibility over instant gratification. Even if you have to take a spot on a waiting list and wait several months for a litter to be born, the opportunity to demonstrate by example the value of making informed choices is priceless.

Your savings don’t allow for possible emergency vet bills– Have your children help you research possible emergencies and what they might cost by calling veterinarians and talking to pet owners. Together, arrive at a figure that would allow the family to acquire a pet and feel financially secure even in the event of an emergency. Then, put a “Pet Fund” jar in the family room, and encourage contributions from the whole family. Save a fixed amount from your own income to add to the pet fund, and work with your children to find age-appropriate ways they can contribute. Younger children can sell lemonade or hold a yard sale to sell old toys, while tweens can babysit and teens might consider a part-time job.

You don’t know how to care for the type of pet your child wants– Thank goodness for the internet! Use Google, forums, and the Lvr series of blogs to learn about the potential pet’s needs. Write on a blank calendar what would need to be done each day in a typical month, from poop-scooping to tooth brushing, and talk with your child about who will be performing these tasks.

The family is not committed to keeping this pet for life– If you’re not ready for a lifetime committment, you’re not ready for a pet. Explain this to your child and admit to making a hasty promise. Apologize, and discuss alternatives. Explain that only 30% of dogs stay in the same home for their entire lives after puppyhood, and that you wouldn’t want to get a pet only to have to give it away or take it to a shelter due to life changes. Consider participating in a foster program through a local animal shelter or rescue. Fostering is rewarding and fun, and preparing rescued pets for their forever homes teaches responsibility and kindness. It can be hard to let go of a foster pet when the time comes, but it also presents a great chance to demonstrate healthy grieving and talk about feelings with your children.

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