When are kids ready for pets?

Parents must gauge their children's maturity, their ability to commit to the chores and the willingness of the family to share the load

It is a common story: A child clamours for a pet and is initially enthusiastic about the cuddly creature. But, within months, the care of the animal is left wholly to the parents or the family's domestic helper.

Some parents, however, hope to bring about a happier ending by getting their children involved in daily tasks and making them see that a pet is a long-term commitment.

When Shaistha Pragalathan was seven, her mother asked her to take the family dog for a morning walk for the first time. She came back after five minutes. It was 6.30am and she did not want to stay longer as it was too dark under their apartment block.

It was her first foray into caring for her family's pets. Her mother, Mrs Lalitha Pragalathan, 40, felt that Shaistha was ready for the responsibility because she herself was about six when her mother got her her first pet - on the condition that she cared for the dog herself.

Shaistha, who is now nine, has since established her pet care routine. She is usually awake by 5.30am to feed dry cat food to their two felines: Citrine, a Siamese cat, and Mr White, a mixed-breed cat.

She also changes the cat litter and takes their 11-year-old Labrador, Shakira, for its morning walk.

  • Tips on pet care

  • Ms Chong Poh Choo, 32, executive manager for community outreach at the AVA, gives advice on caring for pets. She is married and has a son, four. Her family has two dogs, a cat, a gerbil and a chinchilla.

    "In encouraging children to care for their pets, parents are the best role models. If parents exhibit love and care towards people and animals, their children would likely follow their example.

    "While I believe animal companionship is good for children, I do not recommend pet ownership if only the children are interested.

    "Bear in mind that children aged four or five may not be old enough to have a pet. There are other factors to consider. For instance, the birth of a sibling and, thus, the help available to care for the children and the pet.

    "One area of concern when keeping a pet is external parasites such as ticks and fleas, which can infest the pet and the home. Parents should also be aware of the possibility of zoonotic diseases, which can be transmitted from animals to people and vice versa. For example, terrapins can carry the bacteria salmonella.

    "Some parents may also be concerned if their child exhibits allergies and/or has respiratory conditions such as asthma, which can be triggered by sensitivity to animal dander (tiny flecks of fur or feathers). Parents should read up on this and consult their child's doctor before making a decision.

    "Minimise potentially stressful or dangerous situations such as over- handling and rough play, which can result in the pet biting or scratching.

    "I recommend a hamster as a family's first pet. The time commitment is not long as they live a maximum of 31/2 years. Their cages require cleaning only twice a week. Keep only one hamster in each cage to prevent accidental breeding. Wash your hands before and after handling a hamster.

    "Interactions between the child and the hamster must be supervised to avoid rough handling."

These tasks take about 25 minutes before she leaves for school.

Her younger sister also helps care for their pets. Tishah, four, takes turns with Shaistha to feed their tropical fish and black goldfish daily, though Shaistha checks first to see if any fish have died.

The younger girl also accompanies their mother when she takes the dog for a walk every night, during which they also feed stray cats in the neighbourhood. It was Tishah's idea to take a bottle of water along, to let the strays have a drink.

Mrs Pragalathan, who is studying full-time for a diploma in business and information management, is the main person in charge of the family's pets and her duties include preparing home-cooked food for them.

Being hands-on in caring for their pets instils a sense of responsibility and discipline in her children, and also aids their character development, says Mrs Pragalathan, who is married to corporate trainer Pragalathan Ramiah, 41.

Shaistha, for instance, has become sensitive to their dog's needs. One night last year, when she was up late watching television, she realised Shakira was uncomfortable and told her mother. The two of them took the dog downstairs at about 2am for it to relieve itself.

Having the children care for their pets also helps them to learn to "respect every living thing," says Mrs Pragalathan, who has worked with animals in various jobs since she was 18, in organisations such as the Jurong Bird Park and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Singapore.

This respect extends to animals that live in public spaces, for example, not allowing young kids to chase birds, she adds.

While children should help care for their pets, age-appropriateness is important, say animal welfare experts.

Before getting a pet, parents should ensure that their child shows "an understanding of the pet's needs and an appreciation of an owner's responsibilities", says Ms Chong Poh Choo, executive manager for community outreach at the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA).

She adds: "Generally, children who are aged four to five are too young to have a pet as they lack maturity. Older children may be developmentally mature, but may not be ready to commit to caring for a pet if they are busy with schoolwork and a developing social life, for instance."

She suggests that younger children, from pre-school age to about nine years old, take on simple chores such as feeding the pet, ensuring it has enough water and brushing its fur. Older children can help clean the cage or tank.

She emphasises that the whole family should be involved in the care of pets, with parents taking the lead. "A pet is for life. All family members should be willing to contribute to the upkeep of a pet before getting one," she says.

"Parents should not expect children to be the primary caregiver of any pet. Children need the support of their parents in many ways. They will be unable to tell, for instance, if the pet is unwell."

Children often need to be reminded to take responsibility for their pets.

"It takes time. They're kids after all. They say, 'I'll do it, I'll do it', but they may not," says financial consultant Andreia Prates Nagel, 42, who adopted a Schnauzer last year from the Animal Lovers League shelter.

Her nine-year-old son Karel is responsible for taking the dog for several walks a day during the weekends, when he has more time. During the week, he is busy with swimming, piano and other enrichment classes after school.

Mrs Prates Nagel makes an effort to teach her only child to be a responsible pet owner. She has reminded him to take their dog, Smokey, for a walk even when he was reluctant to, like the time he was playing with friends at home. On another occasion, he did not clean up the dog's poo. Mrs Prates Nagel returned to the spot with him to get him to bag and dispose of it.

Fostering an animal is one way to get children used to the amount of care a pet needs.

Ten-year-old Siana Assi had wanted a dog, her favourite animal, for years and this longing intensified after some of her friends got dogs for Christmas last year.

Her stay-at-home mother Sasha Assi, 44, says she and her husband, lawyer Gupinder Assi, 43, decided on fostering to make sure Siana's desire was no "flash in the pan" and that she and her brother, Krishan, eight, would help care for their own pet.

For a few weeks, they fostered two dogs from a shelter run by Causes for Animals (Singapore). They kept one of them, a mixed- breed puppy called Charlie.

Siana and Krishan take turns walking Charlie every day, and Siana bathes him about once every two weeks.

Having a pet took more effort than the children thought. Krishan says it can be difficult waking up to walk Charlie at about 6.30am.

Siana says: "It's a lot of responsibility. I thought it would just be fun, but you have to pick up his poo."

For Ms Astin Lee, 37, who works in a statutory board, getting her two sons involved from the beginning, including researching their animal of choice, helps them to be responsible pet owners. For instance, the boys know that a rabbit can live about 10 years, making it a long- term responsibility.

The family has two house rabbits, Tiger and Miss McFlurry, and are fostering another, Buttercup. They also have a tank with an arowana and other fish, which Ms Lee's husband Tan Chee Khai, 37, who works in the healthcare products sector, is mostly in charge of.

The older son Lucas, nine, helps feed the rabbits a varied diet, including wheatgrass, kale and home-grown herbs. He clears out their excrement every morning and his brother Lewis, six, helps their mother clean the rabbits' pens every week.

Lucas says: "I want to learn more about rabbits because I have them as pets. I read books about bunnies and found out that they can't eat carrots all the time because carrots are very sweet.

"My least favourite part is picking up the poop. My favourite part is talking to the rabbits."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 28, 2017, with the headline 'When are kids ready for pets?'. Print Edition | Subscribe