Photo by Marci Lambert
Stories by Jan Pierce, Stephanie Painter, & Aisling Maki
Most of us can look back on our childhoods and bring up some great memories of a beloved family pet. Remembering a loyal dog or clever cat, perhaps even a canary or gerbil, may bring a smile. Most likely you’d love for your kids to have these same kinds of positive experiences with an animal friend. Here are some guidelines to help you determine whether or not your family is ready for a pet.
Get everyone on board
As wonderful as pets can be, choosing one when a family member is not in favor of the move or is unprepared to care for an animal can be a recipe for disaster. Don’t assume their mind will be changed once a dog or cat is brought home as a ‘surprise.’ While there are numerous benefits for children who are raised with animals, there are also big responsibilities in the proper care and feeding of a pet. The entire family should embark upon this venture together.
Weigh benefits and risks
There are many benefits of having pets as part of the family. Children who have animals around are learning important lessons in responsibility. Animals must be fed on a regular timetable and children with that chore will learn valuable lessons in unselfish and caring behavior. They’ll learn to monitor their own behavior by treating animals gently and lovingly. They’ll learn compassion when an animal needs their care and may even gain communication and social skills as they play. Animals provide lessons about life as they are born, grow to adulthood, and even when they age and die. They provide a tangible connection to the real world and children learn to respect life through observation and personal experience with them. Animals are also a source of great comfort to us because of their unreserved love and affection.
What sort of animal would your family enjoy most? Dogs need room to run and require regular exercise. Cats need less in the way of running room, but still need places to sleep and eat without interruption. Even small animals such as gerbils, hamsters, and mice need a living space that can be regularly cleaned and require exercise. Who will provide this care? Is there money in the family budget to buy food and bedding on an ongoing basis? What about vet expenses?
Determine who will provide care
How old is the youngest family member? If there are babies or toddlers in the home, who will supervise when the animals are indoors with them? Toddlers may want to pull tails and play chase with the animals around the house. Who will be there to teach gentle petting of heads and to make sure animals aren’t teased or abused in any way? Are your older children involved in many after school activities such as music lessons or sports that require the family to be away much of the afternoon? If so, who will have the time to care for the family pet that needs a lot of exercise? Who will petsit when you head away for vacation or Christmas? Consider all of those questions before you choose a pet.
Make a plan
The purchase of a pet with all the necessary supplies can make for a memorable family gift. If the time is right and everyone is on board, spell out all the tasks involved in adding this new family member. Once you’ve found suitable answers, you’ll be able to more fully enjoy the satisfaction of including a furry friend in your family’s life.
Jan Pierce, M.Ed., is a retired teacher and the author of Homegrown Readers: Simple Ways to Help Your Child Learn to Read. • janpierce.net
A Word About Guinea Pigs
by Aisling Maki
A happy, socialized guinea pig squeaks, chirps, whistles, and hops in the air when excited. They are quite easy to care for, requiring grass hay (available at Petco), pellets, fresh produce, and daily floor time, a must for exercise and socializing. Not enough exercise or too small a
cage can lead to joint and muscle problems
Guinea pigs are pack animals, so regular social interaction is imperative to their well-being. Without it, they’re likely to become depressed or aggressive. My piggy, Little Lenny Bruce, never bites because he receives plenty of attention from my 8-year-old daughter and me and enjoys sitting in our laps and being petted. He also squeaks loudly when he hears his name and will follow me.
In fact, he’s become a bit of a social media star because we post so many photos and videos showcasing his personality.
Vets recommend getting a pair of same sex piggies because companionship is vital. The downside to having a male is giving him “boar cleanings,” which entails cleaning their nether regions monthly. (Youtube videos show how this is done.)
Sadly, some piggies wind up for sale on Craigslist. The reasons for rehoming are generally either “we don’t have time” or “my kids lost interest.” I’m a working single parent. If I can make time, so can you. In my opinion, giving away a pet because your children loses interest shows them it is okay to be irresponsible and break your commitment to the life of another living being. People with this mindset should not be pet owners.
Do your research before making what should be a lifelong commitment. And if you’re thinking about a guinea pig, consider adoption.
Ferrets and Lizards and Piggies, Why Not?
by Stephanie Painter
Some Exotic Creatures Also Make Fine Pets
Dogs and cats have proven charms, but some families are welcoming exotic pets into their homes. “Twenty years ago, most reptile owners were younger people who didn’t have kids. That has really changed,” says Dr. Shannon McGee, a veterinarian with Collierville Animal Clinic & Surgery Center.
McGee’s practice involves canine and feline surgery along with reptile, bird, and exotic animal medicine. “Lots of families now have snakes and tortoises and other exotic pets such as ferrets, guinea pigs, and rabbits.”
What Exotics Need
Caring for a ferret or tortoise may broaden your appreciation of a new species, but owners must understand an exotic pet’s needs. “The biggest problem with exotics is that you can buy on a whim and not realize how specific the care requirements are. All exotics have specific temperature, humidity, and shelter requirements.” For example, a tropical lizard requires warmth with high humidity. “Bearded dragons require higher temps and lower humidity, and chameleons need a narrow 10- to 15-degree cool temperature range with humidity or they waste away,” says McGee.
Consider that reptiles require basking areas for sunbathing. You can purchase full-spectrum UV lighting to meet these needs. It’s also important to know that exotic pets require hiding spots. “Without a good hiding spot, exotics get stressed,” he says.
Proper feeding is another consideration. If you buy a bird, you’ll need to provide fresh fruits and vegetables. “You can buy good pellet mixes for birds, but birds do better with fresh fruits and vegetables such as apples, oranges, grapes, corn, and green beans.”
Small Space, Small Pets
So you’ve done your homework and have prepared an optimal environment for your new pet. Now, enjoy the perks. “Smaller exotics fit in with busy households,” says McGee. “They require less socializing time, eat less, and require no walking. Most exotics don’t require heartworm, flea, tick prevention, or routine vaccinations. [Note that ferrets require some vaccines.] Exotics are usually small and can live in smaller spaces.”
You’ll discover that you can form relationships and ‘bond’ with exotic pets. Mom Samira Murray says her family’s favorite pet was a ferret named Petunia. She was quite affectionate and very smart. She learned how to use a litter box, walk on a leash, and to come whenever a clicker was sounded. “Petunia was inquisitive and loved to play hide and seek,” says Murray. “She was very sweet.”
Adds McGee, “As with any pet, the quality depends on how much time you spend interacting with them.”
To start, avoid an exotic with a narrow temperature range and specific diet requirements. Guinea pigs and King snakes or rat snakes make good starter pets. “Guinea pigs are wonderful creatures,” notes Aisling Pa’draigin Condon Maki, whose daughter has had a piggie for two years. “I’ve been surprised to discover how talkative they are.” McGee’s daughter has successfully cared for frogs as well as a tarantula.
Remember that pets should be age- and temperament-appropriate for a child. “Kids can injure very small exotics, and rabbits don’t do well with an active, noisy child,” he says. “Snakes are deaf, so they’re good for loud kids.”
Take Good Care
Dr. David Hanan is an avian and exotic animal veterinarian with Memphis Veterinary Specialists in Cordova. Hanan also stresses the importance of proper husbandry. “Ninety percent of problems are directly related to improper nutrition and husbandry with temperature, lighting, and not providing a hiding area,” says Hanan.
He recommends scheduling a yearly exam for all exotics. “Exotics don’t advertise their illnesses and people don’t always pick up on the fact that they are sick. Know what is normal for the species.”
“These are captive-bred wild animals. Ask yourself; can I provide a good home? With younger kids, avoid hedgehogs or sugar gliders that require more care and knowledge.”
And if you buy a hamster or gerbil, help your child care for the pet. “Often, hamsters and gerbils are treated as ‘disposable’ pets. They’re sentenced to life in a cage in a kid’s room, and children are put in charge of caring for them.” Pets left alone can become less sociable. Keep your pet in a visible space where they can be a part of family life.
Animals Illegal to Possess by Tennessee Law
Wild, native species including bats, hawks, skunks, owls, song bird,s raccoons, venomous snakes, turtles, alligators, and bobcats. Source: Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency; tn.gov/twra