Preparing Families for the Addition of a Pet

It’s inevitable: Most kids at some point in their young lives will look up at you with saucer eyes and plead, “Can we get a puppy?” It’s tempting to give in, especially if he or she is persistent. And, it’s easy to delight in their joy at receiving one as a gift.


But the adoption of a pet is not something to take on lightly. While pets can bring joy and love to our lives, they require a special level of love and commitment in return.


We turned to Suzanne Hollis, client care manager for the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for advice on how to best expand your family circle to include a new pet. For more information on local chapters, visit the American SPCA at


What should a family consider when choosing a pet?


We recommend families do some research on breed mixes. Learn the history of any cat or dog, as well as individual temperament, which is influenced by both past experience and genetics. Dogs should be friendly and sociable with both people and other animals. Cats should also be sociable and able to handle the noise and activity level in your home.


Shelter personnel can help guide your family to an appropriate animal. Dogs and cats both have a need for exercise and mental stimulation. It is also important to accurately evaluate your home and the members of your household. What is the activity level? What is the noise level? Are kids old enough to understand gentle play? How much time can be spent with the pet?


How can a family best prepare before adopting a new pet?


Visit a shelter with the whole family to be sure everyone gets a chance to spend time with the animal prior to making a commitment. The San Francisco SPCA, for example, offers a free New Dog 101 class for prospective adopters; the whole family is welcome to come. We also offer animal camps for kids from ages 6 and up for summer sessions, after-school programs and holiday break sessions. These activities are a great way to get kids acclimated and excited about animals.


Is there a “right” age for a child to have a pet?


It very much depends on the individual child and the level of involvement and supervision you are able to provide. Generally, children under 8 should not be left alone with any animal for the safety of both the child and the animal. When you adopt an older animal, their temperament is developed, so you will have a much clearer picture of whether or not they are kid-friendly.


How long can it take for a pet to adapt to a new home?


Even with social and confident animals, there will be a period of adjustment ranging from a few days to a few weeks. You will want to balance the child’s enthusiasm for spending time with the new animal with the pet’s need for down-time to acclimate to your home. Both cats and dogs need “safe” places where they can retreat from interaction with the child: crates for dogs or climbing trees for cats are ideal for this. Make sure everyone in the family uses only use positive reinforcement.


Millicent Skiles is an associate editor of Bay Area Parent.
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