girl and dog

Should I get my child a pet?

Most parents have been in this situation at some point.

Your child adores cute furry creatures and has been begging you for a cuddly companion for ages.

(In truth, you’d like one too as you remember what it was like as child and the joy a pet can bring to a family.)

And when it seems like every other family has bought a 'lockdown dog' during the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, the pressure to get a dog, cat or another pet may feel even more acute.

On the other hand, once you have children, the thought of having another thing to look after can also be exhausting, quite frankly.

So, should you go for it?

To help you decide, Direct Line has produced a comprehensive guide to pet ownership that will take you through the key considerations before you make any big decisions.

Pros: Having a pet has a series of benefits for a child

Mental and emotional health

Animals have a proven positive impact on a person’s mental wellbeing. In childhood, when the development of a person’s emotional capabilities is at its most impressionable, the addition of a pet can be beneficial.

  • Stress relief – Pet therapy is an increasingly popular form of stress relief. People stroke, or interact with, an animal to reduce anxiety levels. This is caused by the body releasing endorphins after coming into contact with a loving pet. A stroking or patting motion has a therapeutic impact on a child (or adult), triggering this natural reaction and lowering stress and anxiety. 

  • Boosted self‐esteem – Self‐confidence doesn’t come naturally to everyone. But pets don’t judge. Treat them well, and they’ll be your friend for life. This is particularly helpful for children who struggle to make friends. It isn’t easy for everyone to start up a conversation with strangers. Having a pet who makes them feel appreciated and secure can improve independence and confidence.

  • Emotional maturity – Understanding that some things will come before your own desires is an important lesson in maturity for children. Learning when to prioritise a pet’s needs will help them grow into a responsible adult.

Physical wellbeing

Physical wellbeing is also boosted when an animal is introduced into the family environment. This happens in different ways.

  1. More active lifestyle – Owning a pet can encourage you to have a more active lifestyle. This is particularly true in the case of dogs, who need to be exercised to remain happy and healthy. A study found that children who have a dog get an additional 11 minutes of exercise a day compared to those who don’t.

  2. Developing immunities – Studies into childhood illnesses have suggested that living with a pet in the house from birth increases a child’s immune system. It’s believed this is the result of a pet bringing dirt into the family home. Babies and young children then adapt to the conditions, strengthening their immunity. Early exposure to animal bacteria can also mean immunity to common allergies – though some youngsters may be pre-disposed to an allergy. A study carried in 2012 in America found children who live with a dog get ill less often, have fewer respiratory problems and less frequent ear infections. 

  3. Healthier heart – Stress levels can be seriously reduced if you’re regularly given the chance to stroke an animal. As well as releasing endorphins to make them happier, a child will also experience lower blood pressure. The heart also benefits from any forms of cardiovascular exercise, which can be achieved by walking a dog.

Life lessons from owning a pet

Children can also learn valuable lessons from caring for a pet, including:

  • Responsibility – Owning a pet boosts responsibility levels. Aside from putting an animal first, it also teaches children to actively think about their decisions – and stick to them. Caring for a pet forces a child to step up and fulfil duties and roles they might not have to otherwise.

    Activities such as feeding, cleaning up after or walking a pet are great ways for children to learn about responsibility. It makes them accountable for an animal’s wellbeing, and gives them obligations to fulfil. 

  • Socialising – If a child suffers from social anxiety, a pet can give them gentle encouragement. This is a condition which often develops in adolescent years, and is hard to combat. Having a pet which forces someone to get out and potentially interact with others is a good way of supporting progress. A child can tackle their demons head-on, with the comfort of having their pet alongside them.

  • Future Parenthood – It’s a long way off yet for a child, but taking care of a pet teaches a very basic form of parenting. Traits which they’ll need during this stage of their life will become deep-rooted in these early years. While it won’t be obvious to them at the time, an experience with a pet can be drawn upon when dealing with kids of their own.

    This includes:

    • Sticking to a rough routine
    • Feeding and cleaning a pet
    • Putting their pet’s needs first
    • Keeping them medically healthy and cleaning up after they’ve made a mess.
  • Basic life values – Children can also pick up important values from their pets. The most notable of these is empathy. Learning to care for a pet which depends heavily on them, teaches a child how important it is to understand the emotions of others. Having a rough understanding of what their pet is going through will help to develop a sense of caring. This can be applied across all areas of life.

Cons: Pets take a lot of looking after

  • Looking after a pet is a long-term commitment - some cats, and even small dogs, can live until at around 18 or 19 years old so you need to be in it for the long haul. 
  • As a family, you need to ask yourselves whether you’re all willing and able to provide the right amount of care. No matter how much your children promise they'll take care of a pet, the bulk of the work will often fall to an adult carer.
  • Remember, not all animals or breeds are child-friendly. Some will be too aggressive or high energy, while others might not want to be picked up and played with. Then there is the issue of scratching and biting, and destruction of toys and property.
  • Owning a pet means extra expense for food, equipment, pet insurance and extra logistics as you'll have to arrange someone to look after it if you ever want to go away.

Choosing the right kind of pet for your family

If you decide to go for it think about the practicalities when choosing the best kind of pet for your the family.

  • Space – Do you have enough room in your home? If you already find your living space a bit cluttered, a larger pet isn’t a wise option. Think about how much room they’re going to need. If you can’t afford to sacrifice much of your home, your best bet might be to opt for a smaller pet, such as a hamster or fish.
  • Budget – Consider how much money you can afford to spend. If you’ve only got a couple of hundred pounds spare at the end of the month, go for a pet which isn’t going to set you back much. For example, a pedigree dog is not the way to go in this circumstance.
  • Lifestyle – Match a pet with the way you live your life. If you’re busy a lot of the time, don’t opt for an animal which needs a lot of care and attention. It’s unfair on them, as they’ll be neglected – even if you don’t mean for it to happen. Is anyone in your family allergic to animal fur or the dust from a moulting coat?
  • Preference – You also need to take your and your children’s preferences into account. If the children don’t like dogs, don’t get them one. It might seem like a smart way to tackle an engrained fear, but it won’t be enjoyable. If you or the kids have your hearts set on a certain animal, assess your suitability and follow through with it.

Finding your perfect animal match

Once you’re sure that a pet will be welcome addition to your family, you’ll need to decide what animal to choose. There are benefits and challenges with every pet so here are a few pointers to help you:

Dogs: This is the classic family pet but dogs come in many shapes and sizes, and not all are suited to children. Experts say that, generally speaking, mixed breeds are easier to look after than purebreds, and a large dog will be more tolerant of a child’s play. When looking for your perfect puppy, make sure you get as much information as you can from the breeder, pet shop or shelter before bringing them home

Cats: Cats make good pets as they don’t require as much attention as dogs. If you make sure they’re fed, watered and have a litter tray, cats will usually come and go as they please, in between finding a comfy place to have a nap. Generally, cats aren’t as tolerant as dogs of a small child’s play, and some breeds are more child-friendly than others, so do some research first.

Fish: An aquarium or fish tank is often seen as an ideal first pet in the home. It is generally low maintenance and looks nice, and it teaches even very small children about responsibilities. Watching fish swimming is said to have a calming effect.

Guinea pigs: These are also low maintenance pets, and are good-natured and ideal around children.  But gently does it with guinea pigs. Small children need to take particular care as these furry creatures are small and fragile.

If you decide to choose a pet for your family, by thinking about what will suit your children best and what level of care you can provide, you’ll be sure to choose the right companion and positive addition to your household.

Try this PDSA calculator that will match your lifestyle and budget with the right pet for you.

For more on the benefits of pet ownership read Direct Line's Benefits of Pets for Kids – The Essential Guide in full.

This article was first published on the 8 August 2017. It was updated and re-posted on 25 November 2020.

Where next?

What to do if your child is bitten or stung

Why you should encourage make-believe play

Making friends