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Dr. Simon Starkey is a veterinarian and pet education specialist with PetSmart, a North America-wide chain that sells a wide variety of small pets, and also works with local animal shelters to find homes for rescued cats and dogs. (According to Dr. Starkey, the chain has passed an important milestone, having just adopted out its five-millionth rescue pet.)
"Small pets in particular are a great way to teach kids about responsibility, life and death, and caring for something," he says. But he cautions that there are a few questions parents should consider before heading to the pet store and bringing home a new family member, even a small one.
1. How good is your child about chores and other responsibilities?
If your child is good about routine chores such as taking the garbage out, clearing the table after supper, and keeping her room tidy, chances are she'll do a good job of caring for a pet.
2. How serious is your child about wanting a pet (or a particular kind of pet)?
Many are the geckos, fish or bunnies whose care reverted to a parent, because the child lost interest in them soon after purchase. Make sure your child understands that caring for the pet is his responsibility, and that it's a commitment that could last for many years.
3. How "pet-friendly" is your child?
If necessary, consult your pediatrician to check if your child has allergies that might rule out fur-bearing critters; rabbits and chinchillas can be just as allergenic as cats and dogs.
Also, most kids love animals, but not all know the proper way to handle them or behave near them. Overenthusiastic or rough handling can kill a small animal. Dr. Starkey says to observe how your child handles his toys, friends' pets, or the family dog or cat, if you have one; is he gentle or does he tend to be boisterous? If your child tends to get overexcited around pets, it may be best to stick to toy animals rather than real ones.
Page 1 of 2 -- Dr. Starkey says that kids under the age of five should never be allowed to handle small pets. Find out why on page 2.
4. How old is your child?
Dr. Starkey says that children under five should never be allowed to handle small pets, especially reptiles, since their immune systems may not be mature enough to resist diseases these pets carry that are less hazardous to older children and adults.
"We recommend that people wash their hands thoroughly after handling reptiles, and using hand sanitizer if they feel it's necessary, because these animals can actually carry a risk of salmonella."
Generally, PetSmart recommends that small mammals such as chinchillas, hamsters and mice are suitable for eight and up; rabbits and small reptiles suit kids 10 and up; middle-school kids can care for fish, larger reptiles and birds; and larger birds such as parrots and macaws are best left to high-school or older kids.
Dogs and cats fall into a slightly different category, but if your child is to have primary responsibility, you should probably wait until he or she is at least 10, unless the whole family is willing to share in the pet's care.
5. Does your family travel a lot?
If you go away on vacation, be prepared to make arrangements for pet care while you are away. Small mammals and birds, reptiles, and fish can usually be left alone for a couple of days without harm, but if you will be away for longer, you should arrange to have a neighbour or sitter come in and feed them every couple of days.
Cats should have a sitter come in at least once a day, or you should board them at the vet. It's best to board a dog at the vet even overnight, since being left alone for long periods is stressful for most dogs. (The same applies to large birds, most of which are highly intelligent.)
Some pets can go to the cottage for the summer along with you; but if you travel a lot, consider enjoying animals at the petting zoo, rather than in your home.
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