Why big pets are great for small kids

Skip the goldfish. Forget the gerbil. Go big or go home.

Big dogs are the best.
(Image credit: stasia04 / Alamy Stock Photo)

My husband and I don't have children, but our friends increasingly do, and sometimes, they bring their kids to our house. This is how we learned our dog, Abby, loves babies. She is fascinated by them. When a baby carrier appears in our living room, Abby is inexorably drawn to it. She stares at the baby's face, gently sniffing and happily submitting to ear tugs and nose boops and whatever else tiny, curious fingers can mete upon her eminently grabbable fur.

Discovering this new side of Abby got me thinking about pets and kids and what kind of pets we think are good for kids. I also have two guinea pigs, and when I mention them to people for the first time, I almost always get the same reaction: "Oh, I/my cousin/my friend from across the street had guinea pigs/hamsters/rabbits when we were kids."

That's the typical response because, in America anyway, we often think of small pets as fitting for small people and big pets as appropriate for big people. This is a mistake.

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Google "pets for children" and across the top you'll see a ranked list of pets scraped from the results below. The ranking essentially moves from small to large. The first suggestion is fish, then guinea pigs, then gerbils. Cats take sixth place and dogs rank so low they're almost edged off the right side of the screen, taking the worst possible spot for any single type of animal. Click on individual results and it's more of the same: "Small pets are good options for children older than 5 because they can be a great way to teach responsibility," Parents magazine advises.

Let me advise the opposite: Big pets are good options for children, and small pets are better for adults. That's so on three counts.

First, the bigger the pet, the more capable it is of withstanding the chaos of youth. A dog or cat has the size and temperament to be poked and grabbed and dropped without fear or retaliation. If a toddler stumbles onto a beagle, that's fine. If she falls on top of a hamster, you may end up with a dead hamster.

This is part of why bigger dogs can be better for kids than smaller ones. You see, research shows the bigger the dog, the better we tend to train it. When a chihuahua greets guests by barking, jumping, and nipping at their legs, we might find it annoying, but it's not a threat. We know such a little dog can't hurt us, and that removes a lot of the urgency in correcting the behavior. If a German Shepherd greets guests the same way, our response is very different. A badly trained big dog is dangerous, and that's precisely why they're less common. Picking a bigger dog to be around small kids means the pet is more likely to get the instruction it needs to be safe even when children play rough.

Second, properly caring for small pets requires more specialty knowledge and equipment. We all have a basic idea of what a dog requires to live well. But do you know what a chinchilla needs? Do you know how big a tank a goldfish ought to have? Do you know what vegetables can give guinea pigs (and this is a real thing) potentially fatal gas? If you've never owned any of those pets personally, I'm guessing the answer is no. It is relatively easy to bring a known quantity like a dog or cat into the home, and to use its care to teach kids responsibility. Doing the same with a small pet will require much more research and perhaps even more expense for you.

On a related note, the consequences of improper care are more severe for smaller pets than for bigger ones. If a kid fails to let the dog out or clean the kitty litter, you'll know, and the pet won't be stuck sitting in the mess it's made. But if a kid fails to keep a gerbil cage clean, the gerbil has nowhere to go. It's forced to marinate in its own filth. Large animals that have free run of the house have a much better shot at reminding busy parents of their needs than do small pets who may be out of sight and out of mind in the corner of a kid's room.

The third reason is compatibility. Kids have the energy to sprint around and toss a ball for a dog. They have the free time to exhaust a cat's interest in batting at a feather and then move right on to the laser pointer. What they may not have — and, of course, this varies by child — is the patience to win the trust of the small, nervous prey animals we keep in cages.

Adults are the opposite. What we lose in time and energy over the years, we gain in patience. Guinea pigs don't need to be walked when you get home from work and it's already dark out and well below freezing. They just want to chill with you on the couch.

So adults, if you're considering pet ownership, maybe think small. You may find your life is better suited to a pocket-sized friend. And parents, if your children want a pet, go big. Your kids (and the animal) will thank you.

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