IMAGE Children and pets go hand-in-hand, as Sharon Waldrop can attest. "Pets outnumber people two to one in our household," laughs this California mother of four. "We have one dog, three cats, three rabbits, three chinchillas, two parakeets, and an iguana."

With the kid-to-adult ratio already skewed, why would Waldrop bring more animals into her life? "Pets bring enjoyment to the family," she explains. They also teach kids compassion and how to care for others, Waldrop adds. "My children walk dogs, clean cages and litter boxes, change water, and fill food bowls. They know that pet ownership is a big job and a big responsibility."

Adding to the Family

Cats, dogs, lizards, and fish can indeed be a lot of fun, but they are not just playthings. "You are changing the dynamics of your family life when you bring a pet into the environment," says Vicki Folds, EdD, vice president of education for Tutor Time Child Care and a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The desire for a pet typically begins around preschool age when a viewing of 101 Dalmatians or The Aristocats can have your son or daughter clamoring for a trip to the pet store. Before you grab the car keys and your wallet, take a step back. There are several issues to consider in order to make the right decision for your family.

Gauging Your Child's Readiness

There is no magic age at which children are ready to adopt a pet. Rather, consider your child's maturity level and ability to take direction and assume responsibility, says Jean Donaldson, a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and director of the Academy for Dog Trainers for the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

However mature your child may be, also consider your own preferences and constraints; after all, you will ultimately be responsible for the pet. "The parent usually has double duty," both reminding the child of what needs to be done and taking over when the child does not follow through, says Donaldson, author of Dogs Are From Neptune.

Getting It All on the Table

A family meeting is the perfect venue for everyone to express thoughts and expectations before a pet is chosen. Even something as seemingly simple as a goldfish affects the whole family. Children as young as two or three should be involved in the decision process, too, says Dr. Folds.

Such discussions also provide a reality check regarding the responsibilities of animal care. Will your son be so keen on adopting one of the neighbor's kittens when he finds out he is the one who has to clean the litter box? Will Dad be willing to sacrifice his Saturday mornings to take Rex to obedience class? Dr. Folds suggests asking, "What are the ingredients we need to make this pet happy in our home?"

Other questions to consider are: What if a family member has or develops an allergy? Have you budgeted for vet visits, equipment, and food? Will the pet sleep inside or outside? If your family takes frequent vacations, who will handle pet care in your absence?

Taking a Test Run

Once you have agreed on the type of pet, spend time around that kind of animal to gauge your child's interest and comfort level. Your daughter may decide turtles really are not that much fun, or that parrots are actually a little scary.

If your child does show discomfort, do not mistakenly assume he or she will get over it once the animal is in your household. Bringing a feared creature home could lead to nightmares, anxiety, or more deep-seated fears, says Dr. Folds. If you are the one longing for a particular animal, but your child does not share your feelings, you can continue to expose him or her in small doses in a secure environment. If that doesn't work, wait a few months or even a year and try again.

This is especially true with dogs. Donaldson warns against the notion that certain breeds are "child-friendly." "There's no such thing," she explains. How a dog responds to children depends more on the animal's upbringing and past experiences than its pedigree.

Choosing the Age

Once you have decided to get a pet, your family may have its heart set on a puppy, kitten, or other "baby," rather than one that is full-grown. Adopting a young animal does have advantages. For one, you will avoid inheriting bad habits or poor training inflicted by another owner, Donaldson says.

Realize though, that just like babies, young animals require additional care and attention and time. "You also don't know what you're getting," says Donaldson, whereas with older animals, "what you see is what you get." A compromise: look for a full-grown, young animal with an even temperament. You may need to screen more potential pets, but the results can be worth the extra effort.

Getting Help

Even with these precautions, you may find yourself with a pet that just does not fit into your household or lifestyle. Though you may be tempted to get rid of the animal, think about the message that will send to your kids. "It's not a very good lesson for kids to learn that [animals] are disposable," says Donaldson.

Instead, consult with an expert who can help you to eliminate the problem behavior and keep the pet. Resources such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, animal shelters, animal behaviorists, or trainers can help. Many will come into your home to help pinpoint and eradicate problems.

Enriching Your Family Life

Pets can bring years of enjoyment and companionship, and many adults fondly recall the animals of their youth. "Pets were an important part of my life as a child and remain so now that I'm an adult," says Waldrop. "This aspect of family life has been bred into my children no pun intended!"

  • The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

    http://www.aspca.org

  • Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

    http://www.aafa.org/

  • The Humane Society of the United States

    http://www.humanesociety.org/

  • About Kids Health

    http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca

  • Winnipeg Humane Society

    http://www.winnipeghumanesociety.ca/

  • The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals website. Available at: http://www.aspca.org.

  • Donaldson J. Dogs Are from Neptune. Lasar Multimedia Productions Inc; 1998.

  • Hart B, Hart L. Perfect Puppy: How to Choose Your Dog by Its Behavior. W.H. Freeman & Co; 1988.

  • Viner BB. All About Your Pet. Barrons Educational Series.