Pet care can be child's play

Friday, June 16th 2006, 2:02 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Before his parents allowed him to get a hamster, Ian Sanders had to research the rodents, give an oral report at the dinner table and use his money to pay for the animal and future expenses.

For the past two years, the Oklahoma City 14-year-old has stayed true to his promise to take full responsibility for his chubby pet, Caesar.

``The hamster's pretty much the first one (pet) I've really taken care of and paid for and stuff,'' Ian said. ``I really don't like paying my own money because I like to buy other stuff, but I don't mind taking care of it. ... It's pretty fun and interesting.''

Owning a pet for the first time is a common rite of childhood. Determining when their child is ready for a pet is one of the challenges of parenthood.

``I think a lot of parents get pets for their kids when they're not ready, and the parents end up doing all the work and taking care of them,'' said Ian's mother, Heidy Sanders. ``I waited until he was going to be totally responsible for it.''

Lisa Boevers of Edmond got her son, Max, 13, a dog last year when his sister, Michelle, left for college. She felt a dog would be a good companion and her son was ready to be a pet owner.

Since Max has cerebral palsy, the family carefully chose a dog with a good temperament. She visited a sweet Labrador retriever several times at Edmond Animal Shelter before taking her son to meet the dog. He formed an instant bond with the dog he named Skip.

``They are big buddies. He (Skip) rides to school with us, and he rides with us to pick up Max from school. That's his job,'' Boevers said. ``They watch TV together and just hang out.''

Donna Ross of Midwest City said experience made her wait until last year to get her son, Justin, 10, a dog. When the boy was 7, he had two hamsters, but she ended up caring for them.

When her son turned 9, Ross felt he was ready to walk a dog and pick up the yard. He now is the owner of Lucky the Lab and has taken over cleaning the litter box for their two cats.

``Once in a while he fusses, but he does it,'' Ross said. ``It's not so much the age. You have to know your child, what they can handle and what they can't.''

Yukon father Troy Campbell said his daughter, LaShonda, 23, had her first cat, Kit, when she was 3 and her first dog, a beagle named Tadpole, when she was 4. He told her the animals would die if they weren't cared for, and with his help, she fed and watered the pets. The experience made her a lifelong animal lover.

Lisa Perry of Edmond said having pets from a young age has taught her children, Haley, 14, and Dillon, 11, compassion. They have a Lab, Chihuahua, cat, parrot and two guinea pigs.

``I think children are born ready. If they are born into a home that already has pets, then it just becomes a natural part of their daily lives,'' Perry said.

Stephanie Shain, outreach director for the Human Society of the United States, said owning pets can teach children responsibility, but the lesson shouldn't come at the expense of an animal.

Sensible parenting is key to a positive pet-owning experience for children and animals, she said.

``One of the really common reasons that these relationships fail is that we as adults go into them without thinking how much responsibility they are for us,'' Shain said.

Parents should be realistic about the time and expense a new pet will require, said Dr. Joe Howell, a veterinarian with Britton Road Veterinary Clinic.

``It's a lot bigger responsibility than most people think. Most people just think, 'Oh, well, this will work out,' and that's where they get into trouble,'' said Howell, past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

He said parents need to have realistic expectations of their children, too. Children as young as 3 can be taught how to handle an animal and help with basic care, although children younger than 5 should always be monitored around pets. But at that age, parents will be responsible for most of the pet care.

If parents want their youngster to be the pet's primary caretaker, they should wait until the child is about 9 years old or mature enough for the responsibility.

He said parents should consider the fate of a potential pet once the newness wears off.

``Some people just get pets just on the spur of the moment. But think about it as far as day-to-day interaction and what it's going to be like when it gets older,'' Howell said.

Shain suggested parents make a list of conditions their child must meet before getting a pet, such as researching different animals and preparing a place for a pet.

``It's not a failure if you're child doesn't meet those requirements, it just means they're not ready,'' she said. ``The only failure comes from getting an animal and not being able to care for it.''

If parents make smart decisions, their child's pet-owning experience can be the source of many happy memories, Howell said.

In the late 1970s, Gene Caldwell of McAlester bought and trained a Doberman puppy for himself. The puppy, Jazmine, bonded with his daughter, Candice, 1, and became her friend and guardian. His daughter, now 29, still has fond memories of the dog.

``My father would have said, 'Wait until she can care for her (own) pet. But I didn't buy her a chore; I bought her a friend,'' Caldwell said.

In Oklahoma City, Heidy Sanders has fun memories of Ian's hamster and the family's other pets. One amusing memory is of the way the family cat, Sierra, trained Ian's twin brother, Zac, to feed her.

``She jumps up on the corner of his desk while he is studying or the corner of the computer table while he is on the computer and waits until he stops to go feed her,'' she said with a laugh.