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"Mommy, I want a pony." That one, you can let fall on deaf ears. Your kids' pleas for a dog or cat, however, merit real consideration since research suggests that kids raised with pets may be less prone to stress, allergies, and obesity. Here's how to decide if the choice is right for you and your family.
Choose the Right Pet
First, to figure out if your home is ready for something more evolved than a hermit crab, take into account what your lifestyle and budget can accommodate. If you work and commute long hours, and your kids are busy with activities, a cat might be the way to go. They tend to be more self-sufficient than dogs, which require considerable social interaction and exercise, and which need to eliminate outdoors. If your kids swear up and down that they'll feed and walk a dog (even in a blizzard) believe that they will—for a few weeks. At that point, walking and feeding will be two more tasks for your to-do list.
"If kids don't pick up toys, clean their rooms, or manage other responsibilities, don't expect a pet to change that," says Stephen Zawistowski, the science adviser for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Even if your brood is ready for a dog, animals' needs and temperaments vary vastly. Generally, smaller dogs are best with older, more settled kids; larger, quieter dogs do well with younger kids.
Model Gentle Behavior
Whether you already own a pet or are bringing one home for the first time, it should be treated gently: no swatting, dragging, pulling, or shouting allowed. Disciplining the pet should be left to you, but do teach the animal the command "stop"—and let the kids know when to use it. Also clue them in to the pet's do-not-disturb moments, such as when it's eating, sleeping, on stairs, or, for a cat, using the litter box.
Have Some Fun
Of course, a pet's main purpose is to bring love and joy to your home. When a child is first getting to know a dog, use toys. "The animal shouldn't get in the habit of seeing hands as toys," Zawistowski says. The family pet should have its own stash of playthings—a concept any child can appreciate. Let your kid pick out the toys. With dogs, try fetch—a Fido-friendly tosser means both kid and dog will get plenty of exercise—with West Paw Zisc Flyers ($13 each, amazon.com) or hide-and-seek with treats. With a cat, try a "feather taunt" like the Ware Bead-N-Tease Cat Teaser ($4.70, amazon.com). With cats, playing should only ever be with toys, not hands or feet. As the pet grows up, it will likely not even need toys to bond with your kid. In fact, your child will come to think of it not merely as an animal, but as a confidante, great friend, and dearly loved family member.