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The bond between children and animals can bring joy, love and a lifetime of special pets that can even mean better health. But laying the foundation for a healthy relationship – one that will last the lifetime of the pet – is the key. 

Paula Church, Community Relations Coordinator for Greenville County Animal Care, said she is often asked how old a child should be before a family adopts an animal.

“The parents know the maturity of the child,” she said. “At the end of the day, they’re kids. Parents need to be willing to take on that responsibility. They need to have a realistic expectation.”

Angel Cox, Chief Executive Officer for The Spartanburg Humane Society, echoed that sentiment.

“The first thing parents need to do is set up accurate expectations for the age,” she said. “Sometimes parents come in with a 5- or 6-year-old and say they will be feeding the pet to teach them responsibility. That’s an unrealistic expectation.”

Cox often talks with school groups and camp participants about responsible pet ownership.

“We want them to understand that it’s a living, breathing thing,” she said. “Our ordinances and laws don’t look at a pet as a member of the family. They are looked at as property.”

Cox said even small children can be taught to check the cabinet to determine how much pet food is left, even if they aren’t old enough to take responsibility for feeding. They can go along on walks, even if they can’t yet handle the leash. 

Shelter animals can make wonderful pets. Adopting from a shelter or rescue group can also make an immediate and direct difference in the problem of pet overpopulation. But not every family is ready for a pet – and that’s OK.

“Everybody needs to be on board,” Church said. “If anybody is wavering, maybe it’s not the time. You want the whole family to have an opportunity to meet the animal and spend time with them.”

It is a good idea to introduce potential new pets to any animals already in the home as well.

Cox said families should consider the needs of the animal before making a choice. 

“Puppies are cute and adorable, but a Lab puppy is going to be a big dog and is going to be a puppy for 5 or 6 years,” she said.

Consider the costs of vet care, grooming, boarding and food. Ask questions of shelter staff if you are unsure what any particular animal might need.

Camps and classes can be a great way to teach children about pet ownership, animal care and more.

“In the first session of every single camp, we talk about animal body language and we learn to speak dog,” Church said. “It’s important for kids to learn the signals. There’s a statistic that 77 percent of all dog bites happen in the home with the family pet.”

Cats can be the best choice for some families.

“Cats are always in need of good homes,” Church said. “You want to do your due diligence and make sure it’s a friendly cat that will do well in a home with children.”

If a family wants to test the waters of pet adoption, fostering an animal can be a great start. 

“That might be a good way to go if you’re on the fence about what it will do to the family dynamic,” Church said. “Our goal is for everyone to have a good experience.”

Once the choice is made, training can help everyone – including the pet – understand each other. 

“There’s the adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you can,” Church said. “You just have to know how.”

Setting the family and the pet up for success really can lead to a beautiful friendship.

“Pets are not throwaway toys,” Cox said. “That happens a lot. Pets are part of the family. It is a lot of work, but it is so worth it.”

Want to learn more about how to prevent dog bites? Visit www.thefamilydog.com/stop-the-77.

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