choosing a family pet
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Choosing a family pet

A family pet can hugely enrich your life. In fact research has shown that pet owners are healthier and happier than those of us without furry family members.

Growing up with a pet can be wonderful for kids. The experience gives kids a sense of responsibility, but it’s worth noting that only adults can be truly responsible for a pet. Choosing a family pet is a serious decision that family members should make together and fully understand the level of commitment involved.

So before you rush to the pet store with visions of playing fetch with your golden retriever, read our complete guide to picking the perfect pet for your family.

Consider the following factors to check if your family is pet-ready:

1. Know your child’s capacity for understanding pets.

2. Infants and toddlers can’t tell the difference between animals and inanimate objects. They see animals as moving stuffed toys. They can’t understand that hitting will hurt your pet.

3. A three-year-old can learn to respect a pet’s boundaries, but is still unable to understand that a pet’s mind works differently from his own.

4. By the time a child is eight, he will understand that an animal’s thoughts and feelings are unique both because your pet is an individual and a member of a different species.

5. Be realistic about your child’s ability to care for a pet. An older toddler can fill a pet’s food and water dishes when under adult supervision to prevent overfeeding. A five-year-old can clean a pet’s cage when supervised. A 10 to 12-year-old is ready for more responsibility, including feeding and walking a pet, cleaning a litter box or cage, or participating in dog training; but parents must always make sure that pets have adequate food and water and clean environments. The responsibility of taking care of a pet will always ultimately fall on the parent – don’t get a pet if you are not willing and able to care for it yourself.

6. Consider the right small pet for young children. What animal for which child? According to pet retailer Maxi Zoo, as a general rule rule of thumb, the smaller your child, the larger your pet should be. Dogs and cats are more capable of setting boundaries and expressing themselves than small animals, who suffer in silence if not cared for or handled properly.

Here is a short and very useful overview from Maxi Zoo’s website ( of the most popular pets and their suitability for children.

Dogs are faithful, tough companions with which children can play and experience a great deal, and in the fresh air too. Well-trained four-legged friends are fine with even small children. Just make sure you select a family-friendly breed.

Cats can be cuddly, but also very self-willed. They love their independence and will make it clear when they have had enough. Smaller children can thus learn how to handle an animal respectfully.

Birds cannot be cuddled, but are smart and teachable. Older primary school children can take on regular tasks such as feeding or cleaning the cage.

Rabbits and guinea pigs are very popular with children. But they are almost defenseless if are cuddled or chased too much. In addition, they need lots of room to move and are group animals, so should be kept at least in pairs. They are therefore only recommended for families with plenty of space and responsible children.

Hamsters are nocturnal and are not suitable for small children who go to bed early in the evening for this reason alone. Disturbing them during the day while they are sleeping shortens their life expectancy!

Rats and mice are very adaptable, are low-maintenance, don’t need a lot of space and are periodically active during the day. Some let themselves be picked up and even stroked. They are therefore a suitable pet for families with younger children.

Fish are mostly interesting for older children and teenagers who want to observe tranquil underwater life and who are also able to commit to looking after the equipment.

choosing a family pet

Get to know the animal before bringing it home

Animals have individual personalities. Don’t assume that an animal will display child-friendly traits based on the description of its breed or species. Take some time to get to know an animal before bringing it home. Make sure the animal readily approaches your children and displays affection without biting or scratching. Take a turn to handle the animal fairly aggressively to see how it reacts.

Challenging pets

Anyone considering an exotic pet should find out as much as possible about the animal’s needs and whether it is a realistic pet for you.


  • How long the animal will live and how large it will grow.
  • What it eats and how much.
  • What environment the animal needs.
  • Many exotics (such as reptiles) require a carefully-controlled environment, or they may become sick and even die. The environment must allow for natural behaviour, such as burrowing, climbing or basking.
  • The size of enclosure – this is likely to increase as the animal grows!
  • Whether the animal should be kept alone or with others.
  • Whether the animal will be active at night (nocturnal) or during the day?
  • Whether there is an exotics vet nearby who can treat this animal if it becomes sick?
  • Whether you need a licence or other legal paperwork to keep it?

Mum’s story

“I have a westie and my daughter has an amazing bond with her. I was terrified when my little girl was born that our dog Hollie would be jealous, but she loved her and was like her protector from day one. I remember a neighbour called to see my new daughter and Hollie growled at the neighbour as soon as she approached the baby! My daughter is now two and the fun she has with Hollie is wonderful to see. I would definitely recommend getting a pet; it teaches your child to be caring and gentle.” Caroline McGuire

“We have guinea pigs. My son started showing a real interest in dogs and cats, but I feel a larger animal is too much of a commitment and expense at the moment. Right now, he’s learning how to care for and respect his pets by being gentle, watching their cage being cleaned and feeding them. When he’s old enough to ask for a puppy – then I’ll start thinking about that!” Dee Doherty

expert advice

Pete Wedderburn, veterinary surgeon gives us his expert view

There’s no doubt that pets are good for children: studies have shown that children who grow up with pets are more self-confident, more socially adept and more assured.

My own belief is that animals are experts in body language: they cannot talk, so they need to use their bodies to communicate with us. And if children learn to understand animal body language from an early stage, there are many parallels with human body language. It’s difficult to say which animal makes the best ‘first pet’.

My own favourite is the humble goldfish: this is a living creature that requires daily feeding and occasional cleaning out, so it gives a good idea about the nurturing that every animal requires. Goldfish can have surprisingly big personalities, and children often become very fond of their charges.

Moving up from goldfish, my next favourite children’s pets are guinea pigs. Best in pairs or small groups, these are sociable, cuddly, and fun. Young children need to be continually monitored when handling them, because they can be easily injured if dropped. I also like rats as pets, but I am aware that the sensibilities of many parents mean that they are not nearly as popular as they might be.

Bigger animals like rabbits can also make excellent pets, but they can be costly, needing to be spay/neutered, as well as vaccinated. I am not a big fan of exotic pets like lizards or snakes for children: these require specialised conditions such as heated vivariums, and they should not be handled regularly: they can carry infectious bacteria like salmonella.

More things to think about when choosing a family pet

Consider a rescue pet

Consider adopting a pet from an animal shelter. Most animals are in shelters due to changes in the owner’s life – not because the pet was problematic or abused. Most of the animals in shelters are happy, healthy, and vaccinated. Many shelters will spay or neuter your pet before you take it home. Shelters will also know about the animal’s history, temperament, and behaviours and will be able to make sure your family finds a pet that is right for your lifestyle. For further information, check out

Quick basic questions to ask yourself before buying a pet

  • Who’s going to look after it? – be realistic about this one, a young child cannot be expected to carry out the full rota of pet care duties.
  • Can we make sure it gets regular exercise?
  • What will happen to it when we go away?
  • How many hours in the day will it be left alone?
  • Do we have a big enough backyard for it? Do we need fencing
  • Can we afford a pet? Factor in vet and vaccine costs on top of the weekly pet food bill.

Choosing a family pet isn’t always straightforward but it’s definitely worth it!

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Ask Allison

Q My sister-in-law and I both work three-day weeks and we help each
other out with child minding on our working days, which up until recently has worked out really well. Between us, our kids are aged between five and nine years – the problem is that it’s now become quite apparent that we have very different parenting styles. I prefer my two daughters (seven and nine) to have a structured day. For example, in my house, we have allocated times for television and iPads, etc. My sister-in-law, however, lets the kids run loose after school – homework is ignored and my kids end up wired after eating sugary treats all afternoon. I am considering looking at after-school childcare for the kids, but I’m worried that this is going to cause a family argument. Is there a diplomatic way that I can ask my sister-in-law to introduce some discipline into her child-minding days? It certainly doesn’t do her two kids any harm when I am minding them in my own house!

In a word, no, there is no diplomatic way to do this as it may very likely seem like your saying that your parenting style is better than
hers. As L’Óreal says, ‘now here comes the science bit.’ Dr. Kaylene
Henderson, a child psychiatrist, wrote a very interesting blog about ‘the
science behind the Mummy Wars’. She explains that before she had
children of her own she hadn’t been aware of how parents have a
very specific sense of the right parenting style. She also found that parents could be very definite in defending their chosen parenting style. Dr. Henderson, who describes herself as a curious, scientific, open-minded person, was surprised at how defensive parents could be and, at times, of their judgemental attitude towards each other. She explained the neurology of the Mummy Wars; okay, I’ll need you to bear with me for a second. Warning; I’m about to use some neuro-techie language.

Why do we judge each other?
As we have all had different experiences, this means that we all have very different memories stored in our brains. Most of our memories are ‘explicit’ memories – these are ones that we can recall easily such as important dates that mean something to us; important birthdays, special events or stories of and about our lives.
There is another type of memory called ‘implicit’ memory that plays a
key role in our parenting. This type of memory is the stuff that you do on autopilot. Psychologists call these heuristics or rules of thumb –
such as tying your shoelace, or driving your car (once you have learnt
to do both first!). Otherwise we’d really waste a huge amount of time
pondering over tasks that we have readily available to us. This seems to be where the science bit of our parenting style kicks in. This implicit memory goes all the way back to when you were an infant being parented by your parents. This is when you started the process of storing up how they did it into your memories.
Unless you make a conscious choice and effort to parent differently, what you saw and unconsciously learnt will be your automatic go-to parenting style.

We learn habits
This can really kick into gear when we feel our parenting style is
being mirrored or highlighted by disapproval from another parent. I know the cold sweat you feel when your child decides to make their outstanding bad behaviour performance at, of course, the most public and worst time. The implicit autopilot of how your parents dealt with these outbursts will flow unconsciously from you if you haven’t worked super hard to be aware and consciously change the old habits.
What’s happening for the on-looking parent is that they see you doing something they are used to doing, but you are doing it all wrong. Simply, because that is not how they know how to do it.

Find a way that works
You both have different parenting styles – who is to say which type is correct? You just need to know what works best for your family and that’s the bottom line. The irksome feelings won’t go away. You can talk to your sister-in-law, but I’m adding a caveat that it would be hard not to hurt her feelings. What we’re possibly looking at is that you prefer a more structured form of parenting, whereas your sister-in-law has a more permissive style. I’m not sure the two styles can mix, the mixture is a bit like oil and water.
If a collaborative shared form of parenting style can be agreed upon, then that is great, but our learnt hardwiring may prove difficult to change despite the intent to do so.
Perhaps, your own instinct of changing childcare might work best for you. In terms of making childcare work; the fit is ultimately the most
important aspect as you want a cohesive congruent feeling of the other caregiver to just ‘getting it’, like in any good partnership. Best of luck
with this and I wish you both well.



Q. I’m would like to start an exercise programme that will benefit my emotional health as much as my physical health, but I don’t know which type of class would be best. Should I consider choosing from yoga, pilates, tai chi, or could you recommend a class, please?

A It’s great that you have decided to get into exercise. The benefits to you are going to be great. You’ll sleep better, have more energy, better skin, reduced stressed, not to mention all the amazing physical benefits of your clothes fitting better, and looking healthy, trim and toned! My advice to you would be to try them all. Even if some don’t offer pay-as-you-go sessions, if you get in touch directly with the instructor, they will almost always let you try it out first to see if it’s for you. All of the above things that you mentioned are great for mental health, so it really will be a personal preference as to which you go for. On top of the classes you mention, all forms of exercise will give you great mental rewards so consider the not so obvious interval training sessions, bootcamp, and circuits too, as you will also feel on top of the world after a class like that.