One of the most rewarding and constant relationships one attributes to their childhood is often found in the companionship of a pet. Unconditional love, understanding and attention are just a few of the strong bonds that are often forged between a pet and its owner. Parents also often hope that their child will learn responsibility in the care of a new pet. It is estimated that a pet shares over fifty percent of households in the United States. Traditionally this meant a dog, cat, fish or bird. But increasingly a trend is developing towards the ownership of exotic pets. Perhaps the most well known of this class are reptiles such as snakes and lizards which have been routinely present in pet shops for years. However, today’s exotic pet owner may choose from a large variety of animals previously classified as wild such as prairie dogs, monkeys, llamas, chinchillas, or even a pot-bellied pig. While interesting in theory and perhaps appearance, these unusual animals are not uniformly suited for the home that includes a young child.
Purchasing a pet requires a consideration of multiple variables. These include how that pet will be integrated into the family, what the expectations are of the pet in its interactions with the family and, overall, what are the benefits of pet ownership over the risks that it may pose to any family member. This last point is particularly salient in an extended family including elderly persons, or anyone, either child or adult, who is immunocompromised. These situations demand special attention to unusual infections that animals may carry. This information may not be heeded in the general population, but could prove deadly to an immunocompromised person. In particular, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control recommend that these individuals, as well as children under five years of age, should not be exposed to reptiles, amphibians or ducklings. These animal are known to be carriers of bacteria such as salmonella that can lead to serious adverse complications.
The pet industry, particularly the exotic pet industry, is not a well-regulated entity. There is not a uniform set of laws that require pet shop owners to discuss the risks of owning a particular animal with a customer. Common sense should dictate that certain injuries, such as bites, are possible with most domesticated animals. However, it is not common knowledge that something as seemingly innocuous as owning an aquarium may expose a family to an increased risk of bacterial and viral infections if strict cleaning procedures are not followed. Nor do most people realize that virtually all animal that are brought in from the wild carry at least one viral, bacterial, fungal, or parasitic infection that may adversely affect their health. These factors are important points to be aware of and consider in the decision to bring a pet into the home.
Recently an outbreak of monkey pox was identified in children and families in more than five states who had prairie dogs as pets. The infection was traced back to an exotic African rodent that had transmitted the disease to the prairie dogs, that in turn infected their owners. Never before had monkey pox been isolated in the United States. Pretty serious consequences for the novelty of a new pet! As a result of this outbreak public health experts as well as veterinary specialists are now requesting that the federal government implement legislation to regulate the ownership, sale and importation of exotic animals.
The point of all this discussion is to think seriously about the introduction of a pet into the home of a young child. In addition to the above-mentioned considerations, the risks a child himself brings to the table must also be considered. In general, children’s behaviors are not always predictable and may inadvertently provoke or alternatively injure an animal. Close supervision of young children with animals is required at all times. This is true particularly in novel situations where both the child and the animal may not understand their boundaries. Investigate any pet you are considering thoroughly. This should never be an impulse purchase! Enlist the knowledge and experience of those around you and of your local veterinarian. Ask specific questions that generate information that will lead you to a truly informed decision. Discuss your expectations for pet ownership with your family and specifically the consequences of failing to meet these expectations. Once your homework is done, you and your family will be able to truly enjoy your new pet!