Buddy the hamster is happily snoozing as I write this. He is nestled all cozy in his pile of natural bedding and other nesting materials. However, our cute little fuzzy family member wasn't always so happy. His situation is one of thousands involving pets of all kinds that constantly urge me to tell parents to please educate their kids before ever adopting a pet.
Buddy's previous owners were kids and the parents did not step up to help Buddy when the kids did not take care of him. Their solution was eventually to return Buddy to the pet store. That's when my mom and one of my daughters stepped in to save Buddy. We were not even looking for a pet yet. But who else was going to adopt an abused hamster who was blind in one eye?
Your pet is not a toy or a decoration. This an important lesson that all children need to learn. I know what you are thinking when I talk about a hamster. It's just a hamster. There's the problem. Buddy is not an 'it'. Any living creature is not 'just' anything, but is the same as you and me. Kids need to know this before ever getting a pet. No matter how big or small, animals have feelings just like us. When you don't feed them, they feel starvation, just like you would. When you don't play with them, they feel neglected, just like you would if no one paid attention to you.
Pets require love and attention. You cannot buy a pet and just let him sit there on the shelf in his cage. He needs your love and attention. If your kids get a pet, they need to give him lots of love and attention. In Buddy's previous home, he did not receive love and the attention was the worst kind. When we first brought him home, his gut reaction was to instantly bite anything that came anywhere near him. It took months of love and special attention to get him to the point of allowing anyone to hold him without him showing aggression. If you met Buddy the day he came to us and again now, you would think you were meeting two different hamsters. His personality has completely changed - all because of love. Of course, the opposite could also happen in an instant, if he fell into the wrong hands again.
Pets require proper care. Just like a baby, your pet relies on you to thrive. Your kids need to know this. In Buddy's situation, he was not properly fed, not given water often enough, not paid attention to, nor was his cage cleaned often enough, if at all. He already had a hard life (being blind in one eye) and neglectful pet owners made it that much harder on poor Buddy. When Buddy came into our home, he did not even know how to use the hamster wheel or the hamster ball. All he did at first was sleep in the corner of the cage and every now and then he'd get up to eat or drink. Now that he is being cared for properly, he runs in his ball and wheel daily and stands up begging for attention whenever anyone is near his cage. He is much more active than he was when he came to us. Not feeding or caring for an animal can cause them to have depression, be ill, or even die from neglect or starvation - just like if that happened to a human.
Educate your kids before getting a pet. Talk to your kids about proper pet care. Buy books and do research together on the animal your children will adopt. Many pet stores and shelters have special classes that kids can take on how to properly care for their furry family member. If your kids are not responding well to pet lessons, by all means let someone else adopt the pet. You may think you are doing a good deed when adopting a pet in need, but if your children will neglect the pet, it's a much better deed to let another family take on that responsibility. It is very true that having a pet can teach responsibility. But at the same time, kids should be knowledgeable of their care and be willing to provide it before ever adopting an animal.
*I originally published this via Yahoo Contributor Network