If your child wants a pony for Christmas, the answer is probably an easy no. But what if your child wants a kitten or puppy?

When your child wants a pet for Christmas, there are many factors to consider before taking the plunge. Find out what an expert from the ASPCA has to say about getting a new dog or cat for your child.

Factor in your child's age

Ten and up is the ideal age for getting a dog.

Consider your child's age before you adopt a dog or cat. "Ten and up is the ideal age for getting a dog," says Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of the ASPCA Adoption Center, who adds that the same goes for cats. Young kids don't have the ability to read a dog or cat's body language. "They can grab tails and ears and whiskers and paws, and it sets up a cycle of frustrating interactions," says Buchwald. Your child seeks love and affection in ways that aren't pet-appropriate, and the pet potentially becomes afraid of the child.

Should animals be given as gifts?

"The sole act of giving a pet as a gift is absolutely fine," says Buchwald. "It doesn't compromise the placement or the animal. In many cases, when people get pets as gifts, they have really thought hard about what is going to be the right pet." This is when the age of a child continues to be crucial. Older kids are more likely to have the maturity and awareness to really participate in the process of a new dog or cat becoming part of the family.

Do pets ever really belong to kids?

Older kids have the ability to contribute to a pet's care, but parents should face the facts: A new pet will be your pet, not your child's pet. "The parents are going to take care of that pet. The parents are responsible for vet care," says Buchwald. "The parents are responsible for food and supplies. The parents are responsible for supervising and training. They need to make sure that they are aware that they are the primary caretaker." Don't get a pet to teach your child how to be responsible. On the other hand, a pet may be an appropriate responsibility for a child who already demonstrates maturity. Kids over 10 can easily participate in training a dog, which benefits every member of the family.

Don't get a pet to teach your child how to be responsible. On the other hand, a pet may be an appropriate responsibility for a child who already demonstrates maturity.

Is the timing right?

Even if you're sure your family is ready for a pet, consider holiday timing. Buchwald cautions that a new pet needs about two weeks of undivided attention during the transition. This helps a bond develop, especially between a child and a new pet. If you're traveling during the holidays or your home will be hectic with guests and entertaining, wait to adopt a dog or cat when things slow down.

What about size and breed?

When it comes to dogs, as long as the child is of an appropriate age, the size and age of the dog aren't as important. With any breed, size or age, appropriate training is important. Kids need to be coached heavily by parents to learn how to interact with a dog appropriately and learn how to participate in training. Talk to the experts at your local adoption center about your family and which available dogs or cats may be the best fit.

Should you adopt as a family?

If you decide it's time to adopt a new dog or cat, consider whether or not you want your child to participate in the adoption process. "This is one of those more-the-merrier things that really rings true," says Buchwald, who points out that adoption staffers have the ability to help read a pet and child's body language during initial visits. "Adult guidance is really important in the actual selection of the pet," she says. "Having the children there to watch the interaction is great." Just remember to set realistic expectations before you visit an adoption center. You may not find the right pet immediately. If your child won't be able to handle going home without a pet on the first try, it may be better to leave her at home.

Some final considerations:

  • Don't worry too much about the size of your yard or home. The most important consideration is how much time you have to devote to enrichment and training.
  • Think about your budget. Create an estimate of food, vet and supply costs to make sure you have the ability to care for your pet financially.
  • Consider other types of pets. Not sure it's time for a dog or cat? A small reptile, rodent or fish tank may be a better option.

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