When your kids have outgrown their tamagochis, how do you know if they are ready for a real pet?
Isabel Chia shares her story and some practical tips to assess your children.
I have 23 hamsters buried in my garden.
No, I didn’t decide to do a Hitler and conduct hamster-genocide in my backyard. Neither am I a lonely singleton who decided that she needed some critter to fill the hamster-shaped hole in her life.
I was seven years old. Being an only child, I wanted a pet to play with after I returned home from school. After bugging my Mum about it for weeks, she finally relented and took me to the neighbourhood pet store. I walked in empty handed and skipped out with a cafe containing four winter white dwarf hamsters. They were named Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter (though they all ended up being ‘Winter’ because they were all white and I couldn’t differentiate them).
These hamsters then decided that they wanted to do their part to ease Singapore’s population woes, and started a reproducing frenzy. Four became six, then nine… and the rest, as they say, is history.
Till this day, my Mum still(not-so-fondly) recalls the years when our house was practically a rodent den. As it turns out, whether her excitable daughter was ready to include animals in her life without being the death of her parents was debatable.
Some of you may be wondering, “is my child ready to care for a pet?”
See if your kid matches any of the profiles below.
The One Who Can’t Stop Sneezing
You have to vacuum the house at least once a day because even a little dust causes the little one’s nose to itch. When he is in the presence of fur, does he keep sneezing as though there is a feather perpetually tickling his nose? Are his eyes watery, his skin itchy and his breath short?
If the answer is ‘yes’, then it is likely that your child is allergic to the dander (shed skin cells, hairs and feathers) of some animals. Cats are more problematic than dogs because they secrete allergenic oil from their skin, so the hair and skin that us aged are potential triggers.
Reptiles like terrapins may also transmit salmonella bacteria if our child does not practice proper hygiene during and after handling. When I owned two terrapins, my Mum would always remind me to wash my hands thoroughly with anti-bacterial soap.
Not sure if your child is allergic to pets? Try visiting a friend who has the same kind of animal and see if your child shows any symptoms of allergies. Better yet, go to a doctor and undergo an allergy test.
Solution: I was all for purchasing a dog (watching 101 dalmatians probably played a part), but it turned out that I was allergic to its dander. Hence, my mum and I made a compromise by settling for hamsters and terrapins instead, since I did not show any adverse reaction to them.
if your child is not as cooperative, then take measures to keep allergens at bay. Don’t give your pet access to the bedroom, where humans spend a good portion of their time. Get a high-quality electrostatic or HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) purifier and vacuum frequently. Pet allergy shampoos and solutions are also available to neutralise pet allergens before they enter the environment.
The One who wants a pet “because it’s fun!”
What are the signs that your little one treats a pet like a toy - entertaining at first but ultimately disposable? Observe if he frequently treats toys very roughly and quickly gets bored of them. Children can learn responsibility and care from having pets, but will you be prepared if that does not happen?
Solution: Try regularly bringing your child out to do some volunteer work at an animal shelter, or visit a friend who has a pet. After some time, take note if he looks forward to going back, or if there are signs of fading interest.
If your child insists on having a pet against your better judgment, work out a system that allows your child to enjoy the perks of having a pet without compromising on the animal’s well-being. negotiate a deal with a friend who has a pet - volunteer to take their pet home on some weekends so that your child can have the companionship without the long-term commitment. However, first make sure that the animal is suited for such an arrangement - some pets do not take well to sudden changes in the living environment. A simple (but more expensive_ alternative would be to visit the petting zoo more often.
The one who wants companionship, but isn’t ready for full-fledged responsibility
I knew that I wanted a pet, but when my mum sat me down and talked to me about the various responsibilities that it entailed, I wasn’t sure that I was up for it. Couldn’t we strike a middle ground?
Solution: Work out a system of shared responsibility. When my hamsters started multiplying and we realised that they needed bigger homes, we bought larger containers so that they had ample space to move around. I contributed half of the expenses and and my mum paid for the rest.
Discuss and delegate duties instead of expecting your child to take complete ownership. For example, I was in charge of feeding and bathing my hamsters regularly, while my mum helped with changing their sawdust bedding. If your child needs motivation to keep on top of his responsibilities, try drawing up a fun chart to keep track of his progress and reward him for a job well done.
Alternatively, choose animals like fish and turtles that require less maintenance, or buy pets that have a shorter lifespan, like hamsters. However, keep in mind that these animals have needs too and cannot simply be viewed as ‘starter pets’.
In The End...
My hamsters ended up living to a ripe old age, and passed away when their time was up. After the few years invested into their lives, I had a better understanding of what it took to care for pets. Did I do a good job as the caretaker of my hamsters? I would think so, but I couldn’t have done it alone.
Do I still wish that I had gotten a dog? Definitely not, and I’m glad that my mum managed to convince me so, because it taught me that responsibility does is an attitude that must be cultivated, and it does not not happen automatically.
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