Pet Project: Choosing the Right Pet for Your Family

An age-by-age guide to picking the best pet for your family.

Are your kids clamoring for a pet? Saying yes may be smart; research overwhelmingly shows that owning and caring for pets benefits kids at every developmental stage, boosting levels of empathy, teaching responsibility, and even offering a science lesson or two. Research from Purdue University shows that kindergarteners who care for pets have a better understanding of biology; and a large study by Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University links pet ownership with improved emotional health during the teenage years. Read on for pointers on picking the best pet for your family.

Ages 0-5

Pet Pals

Adding a new pet to a home already occupied by a baby or toddler can be a challenge. When considering which type of animal to get, keep your family’s lifestyle and your baby’s developmental stage in mind. A tail-pulling toddler might be better off with a low-maintenance goldfish than a cat or boisterous puppy. Some parents, however, find that a high-energy puppy or kitten fits right in with their family. Young children can keep up with a playful pup or kitten, and parents of babies are already used to getting up at night to clean up messes.

“Puppies take work. If you are going to add a new addition, make sure the house is ready for noisy nights and a little bit of chaos for the first few weeks,” says Jason Troy of Canine Scholars Inc. dog training in Charlotte.

Ages 6-12

Pick of the Litter

Ready to take the plunge and get a dog for your school-age child? Ask around for guidance on the best breeds for families. Expert dog trainer Joel Silverman, former Animal Planet host and author of “Bond With Your Heart, Train With Your Brain: Techniques for Training and Motivating Humans and Other Animals,” recommends against dogs with a strong prey drive, such as terriers, for families with young children. Though these dogs can make wonderful pets, they may react negatively to the noisy, unpredictable nature of a child.

“Dogs with a strong prey drive are often quick to react to the sudden movements, and may chase or nip in these situations,” Silverman says. Retrievers, retriever mixes and other notoriously mellow breeds are known to make great family pets, he says. Selecting a rescue dog? Reach out to a pro beforehand. Trainers, including Jason Troy, will consult with families prior to bringing their rescue dog home to help ease the transition from shelter to forever home.

Ages 13-18

Separation Station

You’re not the only one who will miss a teen who ships off to camp, college or to study abroad. Your teen’s pet may experience separation anxiety, too. While more college campuses and dormitories are allowing pets, most still don’t, so it’s likely that Fido or Fluffy will have to stay behind. Expect a few weeks of mopey behavior after a teen departs, Silverman says.

“Pets bond differently with different members of a family, and a pet will most certainly feel sad when the person he’s most bonded to leaves,” he says.

Offer the pet extra attention, petting and reassurance during this time, and consult with your veterinarian if the animal displays signs of anxiety, such as excess vocalization, accidents or appetite changes. If your pet isn’t overly anxious, just sad, it may be a great time to consider adding another pet to the family, Silverman says. After the initial adjustment period, a new dog or cat can help distract your pet from the loss while providing the rest of the family with another furry companion to love.  

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.