With Christmas just a week away, parents everywhere are still trying to round out their shopping for their kids, still looking for that one gift with a "WOW!" factor. Stumped for ideas, not wanting to resort to more tech gadgets or video games, they start to think about their child's request -- or outright pleading -- for a pet. "Maybe," they think, "I should get them that guinea pig [or rabbit or dog or cat or lizard or...] that they've been wanting."
To that we say simply:
Don't. Resist the impulse.
Pets of any species are not gifts -- they're long-term commitments that carry with them responsibility, accountability, and stewardship. They carry all the things that -- and let's all be realistic here -- a majority of children just are not programmed for.
- Hamsters and gerbils can live 2-3 years.
- Guinea pigs can live as long as 8 years.
- Rabbits can live as long as 10 years.
- Dogs, depending on their breed, can live 10 to 20 years.
- Cats can live as long as 20 years.
- Birds, depending on their breed, can live as long as many humans (60+ years).
Don't get me wrong -- I'm not criticizing kids. Childhood is not the time in our lives in which we're wired for lasting commitments. We're learning, we're growing, we're being taught by our parents and teachers about things like responsibility and discipline. Kids can learn a lot from watching their parents care for animals, and even more from carrying their little chores (such as refilling the water bottle every day) to help their parents care for animals, but kids are not yet ready for assuming sole responsibility for a life. They're nowhere near ready for assuming sole responsibility for their own lives.
- Pets need to be introduced to a household as a family pet, with the adults assuming primary responsibility for the welfare of the animal(s). This is the only scenario in which the addition of a pet will truly work, the only one in which the decision -- and all subsequent decisions -- has the best interest of an animal in mind.
- Pets need to be introduced to a family after some amount of research has been done to determine whether the specific type of pet is appropriate for the household (lifestyle, schedule, other animals in the house, etc.). Children can be included in this process, and lots of information can be found at the local library and from reputable sources all over the Web.
Even if you are bringing an animal in as a family pet, have done the research, and understand that YOU -- the adult -- will be the primary caregiver for the duration of the animal's life, Christmas is still a bad time to introduce an animal to your household. I'll list a few more reasons in my next posting.