Australians love their pets. Around two-thirds of dog and cat owners refer to their furry friends as a member of the family and pet ownership rates are among the highest in the world with 61% of Australian households owning an animal. But for families, when is the best time for children to have a pet?
While it’s not recommended that young children are left unattended with pets, there are benefits to having a furry friend around the house with a newborn. A child who gains exposure to pets during infancy may develop a sturdier immune system and a lower chance of allergies.
For older children, pets can be more than just companions; they can provide a soothing presence and non-judgmental support for children, too. This is particularly the case when animals are used as part of a treatment plan to help children develop communication skills, or to manage medical, developmental and emotional disorders.
When it comes to not allowing pets in the family home, the most common reasons are: the pet might harm the child, the child might harm the pet, not wanting the added responsibility of looking after a pet, and not liking pets in general.
Regardless of age, children who have four-legged friends are found to benefit in various ways, such as gaining greater self-esteem, better social skills and are less likely to experience loneliness.
However, it’s important for parents to teach kids how to behave appropriately around pets once they are old enough to interact with them independently, for the safety of both parties. Kids should also be taught to recognise the signs of when their pet is unhappy or unwell, and how to practise good hygiene with animals too.
So what does the research say?
According to a survey of an independent, nationally representative panel of 1,002 Australian parents commissioned by comparethemarket.com.au, one in four parents believe newborns are perfectly safe around cats or dogs, however large.
Interestingly, a quarter of parents (25%) think it is safe to have a pet with a newborn baby. Furthermore, when it came to the size of the dog in particular, this didn’t seem to alter their views – 28% of respondents think it is safe to own a small family dog with a newborn, 25% agree in the case of a medium-sized dog, and 24% said having a large family dog wouldn’t be an issue. A quarter (25%) were also comfortable owning a cat with a newborn baby.
Babies up to age 1
More than a third of parents (34%) are comfortable bringing a pet into the family when a baby is younger than one. When it comes to canines, as long as it is small in size, 38% of parents think it’s safe when the child is younger than one. This compared with 35% if it’s a medium-sized dog, and 31% when it comes to large dogs. Meanwhile, 36% of parents think it’s safe for a cat to join the household when a baby is under one.
Primary-school aged children
Nearly a third of parents (30%) believe children need to be older than five before having a pet in the house; 44% of parents think this in relation to introducing a large family dog, 31% in relation to a medium-sized dog, and 22% for a small dog. On top of this, 21% think children need to be five years of age or older to introduce a cat safely into the home.