Expectations when a new animal joins the family.

This is Rose. She is my six year old nephews new lab puppy. Although Rose has been a member of the family for under a week she and her new “owner” already adore each other. In fact, for the first 48 hours Rose’s feet hardly hit the ground as my nephew enjoyed carrying her places. Neither Rose’s boy or his eight year old brother can fully comprehend that one day Rose is going to be as big as their 78 pound chocolate lab, Jade.

There are many things about owning a pet that children don’t fully understand, and cannot fully understand because they are children. A human mind needs to mature before it can fully grasp the chain of events that are to be expected when acquiring an animal companion. I don’t mean to be painfully obvious but too often I hear families discussing getting a pet and expecting younger children to bear the brunt of animal care. This is neither realistic or entirely possible.

Of course a child can be trained to ensure that their animal is fed several times a day and to ensure that there is clean, fresh water available. But this is training that requires an adult’s active involvement. Reminders are necessary until this process is part of a routine. And often children have such active lives — aside from homework there are sports, music, and dance lessons competing for time — that a child may have a routine that varies day to day. Then there is illness and unexpected events. To be realistic an adult should expect that if he/she trains the child the child will usually care for the animal’s basic needs with coverage from the adult when it isn’t practical to expect the child to meet all these demands.

Then of course there is the cleaning up after the animal. Again, children can be trained to be part of this routine but it is idealistic and can become sadistic to enforce this too rigorously, i.e. in childhood I had a friend whose father made her younger sister get up in the middle of the night to clean up after a pet. Obviously, if you’re reading this blog you probably find that as abusive to the child as I do. So again, animals, like children will get unexpectedly sick, and as the adult it will sometimes be your responsibility to clean up after the pet.
Not to mention that constantly picking up the yard or cleaning a litter box or a cage on a regular basis will at least require an adult’s supervision for younger children especially.

Cost is also something that should be expected to be carried by the family. Aside from the spaying/neutering there are often annual shots, perhaps flea/tick/heartworm prevention and/or treatment, and again potential unexpected costs. I recently discovered that my own puppy Lil had a more serious injury than I had realized — she did not show any of the signs that would be expected for the injury she had and we don’t know when/how she received this injury. She will unexpectedly be on joint supplements for the remainder of her life and may also have other unexpected costs.  Having cared for a number of animals over the years this is only the second time I’ve had an animal incur such a sudden, rather dramatic change in their health care expectations but  the unexpected will happen.

I admire my sister and brother-in-law for the practical approach they are taking to teaching their children about the responsibilities of keeping companion animals. Their boys understand that pets need food and water every day, that in the case of dogs there needs to be regular outside exercise and training, and in the case of cats litter boxes are cleaned (by the adults), and even the fish tank requires cleaning and sometimes changing out dead plants for live ones. The children take part where they can be realistically expected to and the adults fully expect to provide regular child-training about caring for animals, as well as all the back up care.

For those who believe that children just pick up how to care for an animal by being around it, I will share an experience from when I lived in Vancouver, B.C. Canada.
I was living in an apartment complex with my two dogs – who needed to go out multiple times a day, including when I was sick or when they were. My neighbors down the hall stopped one day, to talk to me about their dog. Having never seen their dog I asked where it was. They paused… then confessed they didn’t have it anymore.

I asked, what had happened to the dog? They said that they got caught up in the idea of rescue and adopted a cute dog from the SPCA. Once they’d been home with the dog for a few hours they suddenly realized that one of them was going to have to take it out every time that it needed to potty. Once outside, they wanted the dog to be able to get exercise, so they would let it off leash. Unfortunately, the dog would only occasionally come when called. Finally, one day they got frustrated and quit looking for the dog. They later saw it with another lady and decided not to tell her it was their dog.

Yes, this really still happens. While I’m a believer in having animals as part of families and in pet adoption I fully believe this poor dog would have been better off left in the shelter until a responsible owner had adopted her. Being unprepared for the commitment that an animal requires is unfortunate and avoidable. Before adding an animal to your household, be realistic about the cost and commitment that are part of this arrangement. There are many places to find advice and information. If you know someone considering adding an animal to their family who perhaps doesn’t seem to realize the commitment involved, consider giving them a pamphlet or small, well illustrated book about setting up an animal safe environment and the basic care required. Many of the breed specific books share the same introductory information about animal care but use members of the breed to help illustrate these points. Look for a user friendly way to get the family interested in learning about animal care.

If you have found a friendly, effective way to inform potential pet owners about the accompanying care and cost involved, please share that here. I’m always looking for new ideas about educating potentiall homes.

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