Selecting Safe Pets

Pets love us unconditionally. They're also great for our health — mentally and physically. Caring for pets can boost self-esteem, prevent loneliness, and even lower heart rate and blood pressure in some people.

Growing up with a pet can be wonderful for kids. But remember that although the experience gives kids a sense of responsibility, only adults can be truly responsible for a pet. Selecting the right pet is a serious decision that family members should make together.

Before You Select a Pet

A common mistake is bringing home a pet on an impulse without fully understanding the level of commitment involved. For instance, lots of people buy bunnies at Easter time without giving a thought to the 5- to 10-year commitment their family will be making to the animal. Moms and dads also often flock to the pet stores and shelters to find a dog or cat for a surprise Christmas or birthday present for their kids.

But many shelters and pet stores actually don't allow purchases or adoptions of pets around the holidays because, far too often, animals are returned when families haven't thought through all of the responsibilities of taking care of the pet.

If you're set on getting a pet for a birthday or the holidays, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) suggests first buying and wrapping some pet supplies (pet bowls, pet bed, leash, etc.) as gifts, then selecting the pet as a family. That way, everyone has time to really think about whether your family is ready for a pet.

Key Questions

Before adopting or purchasing any pet, talk to all family members, discuss expectations and responsibilities, and take a realistic look at your family's lifestyle. Ask yourselves these key questions before leaping into pet ownership:

  • How much care will the pet require?
  • What role will each family member play in the pet's care? Who will feed the pet, groom and bathe it, clean its living space, and walk it, if need be?
  • What kind of medical care will the pet need?
  • How big will the pet grow to be?
  • Do you have enough space in your home for the pet to live and exercise? If you're thinking about getting a dog, do you have a yard, preferably a fenced one? (Cats, birds, rabbits, and other small animals can generally adapt to any space, but dogs need lots of room to run and jump.)
  • Do you have another pet? How do you think it will get along with a new pet?
  • Who will care for the pet when you're away? (e.g., what will you do with the pet if you work long hours and the kids stay after school for soccer practice? What if your family travels a lot?)
  • Does anyone in your family have a history of allergies or asthma? If so, talk to your doctor about the possibility of pet allergy tests to see whether anyone might be allergic to certain animals. Or consider a hypoallergenic pet who is less likely to trigger allergic symptoms.

Are Some Pets Dangerous?

Although the animals your child sees in the woods or parks may be cute to look at, they can be dangerous as pets — they aren't used to being around people and may carry diseases that can be transmitted to your child. People mistakenly believe they can tame a wild animal. Instead, you should teach kids to stay away from animals in the wild, and never to touch, feed, or try to take an animal home.

And just because you can buy a pet from the pet store doesn't mean it's safe for homes with kids. Animals that may not be child-safe include:

  • reptiles (turtles, snakes, lizards, iguanas)
  • rodents (hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, chinchillas, hedgehogs, prairie dogs, mice, rats)
  • amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders)
  • ferrets
  • baby poultry (chicks, ducklings, goslings, turkeys)
  • monkeys
  • exotic animals

Reptiles transmit salmonella, a kind of bacteria, through their feces. The salmonella bacteria are transmitted through direct contact with reptiles or by touching surfaces and people who have had contact with reptiles. Pet reptiles are more risky for infants and elderly people who are likely to have greater difficulty with a salmonella infection.

Dogs and cats can also spread infections. For example, pets that are often outdoors easily pick up ticks, which can carry diseases such as Lyme disease. This shouldn't stop you from owning a dog or cat, though. Using effective preventative tick treatments and collars can help decrease the number of ticks that find your pet. If you live in a wooded area, check your pets regularly for ticks.

Pay attention to which dogs aren't recommended for first-time owners. For example, some larger breeds, such as Doberman Pinschers, Dalmatians, and Great Danes, may not be kid-safe because they can grow to be more than 50 pounds. Also, bites from very large dogs can do a lot more damage than those from smaller dogs. And, of course, avoid choosing a dog that's been specifically bred to be an aggressive fighter (such as some Pit Bulls or Rottweilers).

Do Your Research

Common domesticated animals that can make good family pets include cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, and fish. But be careful about labeling a certain animal or breed as unquestionably safe. There are exceptions to every rule, and any animal may scratch or bite if put in a dangerous situation.

Before choosing any kind of animal for your family, learn as much as you can about your pet-to-be:

  • 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) about taking care of different kinds of pets. If you're interested in rabbits, the House Rabbit Society is an excellent resource — visit its website for information 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, can have physical and/or behavioral problems. Instead, consider buying a dog from a private breeder or adopting one from an animal shelter.
  • Ask neighbors and friends about their experiences with various kinds of pets.

Taking Your Pet Home

These tips will keep kids safe and help both your family and your new pet adjust:

  • Take your pet for a checkup as soon as possible. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, a breeder, shelter, or pet store should allow you to have an animal examined and returned within an agreed-upon time if it's unhealthy. Read the fine print on any pet-purchase contracts to make sure.
  • Teach kids how to handle and pick up pets — to never squeeze them too tight, drop them, fall on them, or pick them up too fast.
  • Teach kids never to tease animals or pull their tails or ears.
  • Teach kids never to bother animals while they're eating, sleeping, or tending to their young.
  • Teach kids never to take a toy or bone away from a dog.
  • Teach kids never to pet or try to play with an animal they don't know, even if it's someone's family pet.
  • Closely supervise pets and kids. Never leave an infant or toddler alone with a pet.
  • Don't put pets into scary situations. For example, if you know your cat gets nervous around too many people, then put the kitty in another room during parties.
  • Teach kids to wash their hands with soap and water after handling pets.
  • Don't keep undomesticated animals as house pets.

Pet ownership has many benefits, and doing a little research before taking the plunge will help make your new pet a welcome addition to the family.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: April 2014