The best advice I can give to a reluctant parent feeling the pressure of a child begging for a pet is this: Just say "no."
Why the hard line? Because I don't want to get a letter from your child when you decide you've made a mistake. The ones I get now are breaking my heart.
We don't like to say no to our children. Some might argue that ours is an era of indulgence, with consequences that are just beginning to show, but that's for a writer with expertise in children to say. Mine is in pets, and every day I hear from children who are already paying the price for overindulgent parents: Another family's poorly chosen, poorly trained and mostly ignored pet is heading for the shelter -- and a child is heartbroken.
Maybe the parents decide the inconvenience isn't worth it. Maybe they escalated a tug-of-war into threats they must now make good: "If you don't clean the litter box (walk the dog, feed the guinea pig, etc.), your pet is leaving!" In any case, this is the stage when I get the e-mail, typically titled "HELP!" with enough exclamation points to fill out the rest of the subject line. The e-mail is usually something like this: "Gina, please, please, please! Tell me how to get our dog to stop jumping up, or my mom is getting rid of him!! You gotta help me!!!"
By the time I hear about it, it's usually too late.
Although parents fixate on the idea of responsibility, that may well be the least of life's lessons a pet can help a child to learn. Pets offer unconditional love, and they're always there to listen. They teach compassion and gentleness, and the importance of caring for something weaker than yourself. Even in death, a pet can teach a child by laying the groundwork for handling the losses we all have to live with. But they cannot teach these lessons without the help of a parent. And that help starts long before a pet comes into the home.
If you're contemplating adding a pet to your household, let some time pass before the trip to the adoption center. Pets should never be an impulse purchase! You need to make sure your child's interest isn't a passing thing. If your child starts soccer and doesn't like it, the equipment she needed can sit in a closet without any attention at all. A pet isn't like that. It's a living, feeling being that cannot be shoved aside in favor of the next interest. Let your child "try on" pets. Take in the classroom hamster for the weekend, or baby-sit a neighbor's dog. Talk with your child and make sure he understands a pet isn't the same as a video game or other "object."
Once you think your child might be ready for a pet, be clear on what you can and can't handle. A dog seems to be the Holy Grail of children's pets, but a lot of families are just too busy to handle the time and effort involved in raising and keeping one. Put aside your emotion and ignore the begging. Figure out which animal is the best fit for your household, even if it's not the pet of your child's dreams. Instead of a large-breed puppy, consider a smaller adult dog, perhaps. Cats are a better choice for many households, as are rabbits, rats or guinea pigs, or small birds such as cockatiels.
Consider honestly the pet's care requirements. And realize that although your child can help with pet upkeep, the final responsibility falls on your shoulders. Don't threaten your child with the loss of the pet -- it's inhumane! Give children the chores they can handle, and follow up to see that they're done.
Above all, set a good example. If your pet has a problem, get help and work on it. You're doing considerable damage when you "throw away" a problem pet, teaching your child that a living thing can be treated like yesterday's newspaper. Think about the messages your action convey.
Pets are wonderful for children, but only if parents do their part. Don't say yes to a pet until you're sure you can handle it.
PETS ON THE WEB
Cockatiels are one of the most popular pet birds around, with good reason. They're not terribly expensive to acquire or maintain, they're small and easy to handle, and they offer as much in the way of companionship as larger parrots do. If you've lost your heart to one of these feathered charmers, you'll want to visit the Web site of the North American Cockatiel Society (www.cocktiel.org). Pet birds rule on this site, with information on care and behavior, lots of 'tiel pictures, and a handful of recipes for bird treats.
Maryland is the latest state to allow pet-themed license plates, with sales supporting spay-neuter efforts. The idea of using license plates to pay for worthy programs isn't new. In California, for example, car owners can pony up for plates that support the arts or coastal preservation. But the pace of states adopting spay-neuter plates has been disappointingly low. The first state to do so was New Jersey in 1993. According to the Humane Society, only eight other states have followed: Alabama, Arizona, Virginia, New York, Connecticut, Texas, Tennessee and Maryland.
What's the holdup? This seems like a no-brainer! I'm sure there are millions of animal lovers who'd happily support spay-neuter efforts with a license plate that also tells the world about their love for animals.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: In your recent column on choosing a kitten, you suggested avoiding overly shy or aggressive animals. I want to know who you think will adopt the poor unloved little creatures that may hiss or shrink away because they have been mistreated or have not been given any attention. Sometimes those very same kittens turn out to be the best pets, if the owner is willing to work with them and give them time and lots of love. They are the certainly the ones who are most in need of a good home. Shame on you, Gina, for being prejudiced against them. -- F.L., via e-mail
A: It's not pretty, but the fact is that in every community more kittens will be born than can possibly find homes. This sad situation will remain until those people who still believe it's OK to let their pets breed finally get the spay-neuter message. For now, though, we are forced to "play God" with the kitten surplus, deciding who will live and who will die.
I agree with you that some of these unsocialized kittens will come around with loving care, but many won't. And although some people may have the dedication needed to turn these youngsters around, the majority do not have the time, patience or interest in doing so. These people will never bond with their cats, and that puts the animals at risk of being dumped at the first sign of trouble.
Considering that there aren't enough homes for all the kittens born, would you rather condemn those kittens who have the best chance to make it as pets? Are they less deserving? Don't blame me for being honest about the situation, and don't blame the shelter workers who make these life-and-death decisions every day. The problem is the folks who allow the "oops" litter, or who allow a litter so their kids can see the "miracle of life," or who turn out their cats because they don't want a pet anymore.
Shy or aggressive kittens are a special challenge, and I admire those people who go the extra mile on their behalf. But the truth remains that for most people, friendly, well-socialized kittens make better pets. And there are plenty to choose from in any shelter.
We must all work together to reduce the number of kittens who will die for the lack of a home. Spaying and neutering is available at a reduced cost in nearly every community. Call your local shelter for information or for ideas on how to help.
Q: Our dog, Daisy, runs and barks at people walking by. When we tell her to come, she ignores us. She seems to scare people, and I don't know what to do. She stays on our property, except when people walk by. Help! -- L.B., via e-mail
A: What you have is a disaster in the making. Even if your dog never bites someone, she could frighten a passer-by into tripping or falling. Someone's likely to get hurt.
First, put Daisy on a leash when she's out with you. A dog who stays on the property unless someone walks by is a dog who's not staying on the property, period. She needs to be kept under control, and since she hasn't been trained to come when called, that means a leash. Second, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a behaviorist or trainer who can help you both with her territorial displays and with her obedience.
Don't take any chances with this. You could end up with a lawsuit, or worse.
Q: Our dog has bad breath. What can we do? -- G.N., via e-mail
A: Have your veterinarian check out your pet's teeth and gums. Rotting teeth and gums can become a powerful source of "doggy breath" that some pet owners treat with products that may temporarily fix the smell but do nothing about the real problem.
Plaque buildup on the teeth of both dogs and cats can causes gums to recede, opening pockets at the root line that are the perfect setting for bacterial infections. Left unchecked, these infections do more than cause bad breath. They can lead to tooth loss, make eating painful, and put a pet's immune system and internal organs under pressure, causing illness and premature aging.
Depending on the severity of the problem, your veterinarian may recommend having your pet's teeth cleaned under anesthesia, along with having any broken or rotting teeth removed. Your pet will likely go home with an antibiotic, and you'll be encouraged to keep the teeth in good shape with brushing, special diets, dental chew toys or a combination of them all.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to WriteToGina(at)YourPetPlace.com.
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