The great pet debate

We are deeply embroiled in the Great Pet Debate of 2016 at my house. The kids want a pet. I think they all (including my husband) might like a dog, but I am pretty dead set against that. A cat has been floated as a compromise. My kids liked the new kitten their cousins got. My 9-year-old observed what was involved in feeding the (indoor) cat and dealing with the litter box. He has assured me he would take the lead on these tasks.

I am really not a pet person. I don't like animal hair on things, or the smells. I also suspect that, children's protestations to the contrary, I would either wind up nagging or doing a lot of the pet care myself (one reason the dog is out. They really need a lot of care.). I'm also somewhat worried about my toddler's ability to deal with an animal, and the pet's ability to deal with the toddler. This morning, I left the 5-year-old and toddler in the kitchen while I went to the bathroom. They appeared to be calmly eating their waffles. Two minutes later my daughter was calling for me. The story is that the toddler wanted to feed the fish, so my daughter opened the jar of fish food for him. He pulled over a chair to the counter, and proceeded to dump the entire jar of food into the (small) tank. I tried to "fish" out what I could but I was on my way out the door to the airport, so G (nanny) tried to rescue the situation. Unfortunately, the word via text message is that the fish may not have survived being transferred to new quarters while their tank was being cleaned.

So, there's that. I'm curious if readers have thoughts on pets -- particularly cats, or maybe there's an alternative? -- and at what age children can be expected to assume at least partial responsibility for living things. The kids have been asking for a long time. Back when my husband and I had found out we were having a fourth kid, but hadn't told the kids yet, he jokingly asked them "Which would you rather have, a dog or a baby brother?" They all answered dog.

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30 Responses to The great pet debate


  1. ARC says:

    I would say that unless you or your husband is ready to do all of the work for a pet, then don’t get one. Promises by kids are short-lived and you will either end up nagging them constantly or just doing it yourself because it’s less annoying/faster.

    If you are just going to resent it as another *thing* that needs work, I’d advise against it.

    We’re crazy dog people so our dogs have always been part of our family. They need attention and stimulation as well as the basic care, and I’d suspect that’s true of cats too. They act out in all sorts of unpleasant ways when they are not getting the exercise/attention that they need and you will end up cleaning that up too ;(

    I guess I’m advising getting a pet unless YOU really want one. This is also why I’m holding the line on a second dog (which my husband and kids want). I can’t deal with another being in my house who needs love/attention/care from me right now 😉

  2. T says:

    This is a suggestion that involves some work but could you find a cat to cat sit over the holidays? I LOVE dogs but grew up with them so know how much work is involved. We travel all the time and I really didn’t think it was going to work with out lifestyle or daily schedule. My husband really wanted to get a dog. We took care of our friends’ dog (who we love) twice for about a week each time. By the end of the second week, my husband told me he really didn’t think it was the right time for us to get a dog…. Someday hopefully!! But not now 🙂

  3. Calee says:

    We have perhaps the world’s lowest maintenance cat.
    I do handle the feeding, but that’s only because I hate the feel of spilled cat food and bare feet. The box gets emptied out not very frequently. Most of the time she goes outside for her business, but is solidly on the indoor cat side. She’s always in at night and I lock her in the garage so she doesn’t bother anyone. We travel pretty frequently and have a neighbor family stop in every 3 days or so when we are gone. When we’ve been in-between cats, we get mice in the garage and backyard. Not with Catty around!
    Cats are really, really low maintenance and your kids are old enough to do the care. Also, cats are really good at running away from toddlers. They’re hardy enough not to be breakable (even kittens, even with 2 year olds) and will usually let a kid know if the petting is too forceful, etc.
    Dogs are way too much work! Cats are useful and not too needy. They make great family animals. Just make sure you get a female, get her fixed, and get a kitten. A rescue under 10 weeks of age or so is fine, but any older, then you have potential personality issues. Get a cat that grows up with your kids and you will be fine.

  4. Jennie Evans says:

    I have always been a cat person. Until I wasn’t. Cats are great, but I’m not sure they are really lower maintenance. They generally do not not have to be walked, but keeping up with fur can be a nuisance. My daughter, turns out, is deathly allergic to cats. So my house cat ended up being a barn cat. She’s a good mouser and seem to really love her new occupation and location. (No small people pulling her tail.)
    I became a dog person when the right dog came into my life at the right time. We were just past the toddler stage with the youngest. He was probably edging into 4 years old… He’s a mutt that needed a home and happened to be a short haired terrier mix. He was toilet trained when we got him. I figure he had at one time had a home, but had become “lost” and never recovered. He is probably easier than any cat I have ever had. He’s not the cutest, fluffiest baby, but he is perfect for us.

  5. Katherine says:

    My husband has drawn a pretty firm line against anything else with a heartbeat living under our roof. If the kids want a living thing inside he directs them to a plant:/
    So that is why we got a bunny. He lives outside in a hutch and pen that we got off craigslist. My daughter has been adamant about wanting a pet for years now and that was one that we could compromise on. As much as she loves it she still needs reminding to care for it on a daily basis. I don’t have to nag, though. She really does love her bunny:) And she does not complain about it even when it is really snowy outside or raining or whatever. Overall it has been a great family pet.

  6. E says:

    I think I was about 7 when I got my first cat and he was officially “mine” – birthday present! It was always my job to feed him starting from the beginning although I’m sure my mom helped. I wanted him so badly I was motivated, and pretty quickly he settled on me as the one ffeding . He was indoor/outdoor and didn’t really use a litter box which was one solution to that issue. (I will never have an outdoor cat again though, for a lot of reasons. Needing to endlessly let them in and out is a more selfish one, also he got hurt in fights and we think a car accident once.)

    I found it very helpful to think really hard and honestly about my situation and what a cat would need to cope with. I then discussed those things with the woman who was fostering the cats who was my point person for the rescue agency. They know the cats and their personalities and an experienced person working with placing pets wants a good fit, because they want the situation to work and for you to keep the cat. I’ve taken this approach twice and its worked really well for me.

    I also have an automated feeder, a Roomba to deal with cat hair, and you can get automated litter boxes. I can’t vouch for either of those things with children, especially toddlers, but they make a lot of pet ownership much simpler. The one thing I can’t simplify is visiting the vet, which I forgot to factor in as a potential time suck. At least vets are good about having evening hours.

    I love my cats but they are not for everyone. Good luck with your decision making!

  7. Jenny says:

    We have a cat and a dog, and while I love them and am happy to have had them in my life, I’m seriously counting down the days until we’re no longer pet owners. They’re both approaching “senior” status and we absolutely will not be getting more pets, even though my daughter dotes on them and will surely want at least another cat, but no. I’m done taking care of and cleaning up after animals and their fur covering everything and their disruptions to our sleep (worse than kids! I swear!).

    I agree that cats are lower maintenance, and safer around small and grabby kids (they’ll just run away and hide, dogs are so much more unpredictable), but I find our cat’s care just as much of a mess and burden as our dog’s, the only upside is that we can go away for a weekend without having to find boarding. So yeah, adding to the chorus to hold firm unless YOU truly want one. Kids are just not thoughtful enough to be considered reliable caretakers (speaking as someone who grew up with multiple dogs and cats and very much viewed them as my parents’ ultimately responsibility even though I helped with feeding and walking and all that).

  8. Helena Weiss-Duman says:

    I resent the cats everyday. The promises of my husband and kids to take of the didn’t stick. They’ve ruined my furniture, bring dead animals to the house, wake me up in the night (unless I am the person to put them in the garage), stink up the garage with the sand box, cost money for the vet, etc,

  9. You and I have the same number of kids and they are similar ages (I think our youngest are only a couple months apart – mine turned 2 on the 28th).

    I have repeatedly said that we are not getting a pet of any kind until the toddler is at least five – there’s just too much going on and I feel like I have my hands full enough just keeping the children alive on a daily basis. Plus, having a pet takes away the freedom of traveling without finding and paying for a pet sitter, on top of all the other things mentioned by you and other commenters.

    Mostly, I want to be getting enough sleep on a regular basis and be out of the baby stage before adding in more responsibility.

  10. We volunteered with the animal shelter to foster kittens. It gave our family the chance to live with animals and take care of them without the long term commitment. We took kitties when it worked with the rest of the schedule, and I knew I had a little extra time to devote to their care. The kitties got all kinds of love and handling by children which made them very social and easy to adopt. Win-win!

  11. Susan Stephan says:

    We adopted a 6 year old declawed cat from a no kill shelter. Super easy. Food is just left out all the time. Self cleaning litter box is amazing. They are cheaper on Amazon. My boys are super playing with him (7 and 9). Easy to leave for a weekend as long as we leave enough food and water. Roomba helps with all cleaning.

    http://www.petsafe.net/litter-boxes

  12. Hayley says:

    I recommend a cat for what they can offer your children – a calm animal to stroke when a child is stressed, a comforting weight on the bed at night when a child is afraid, a pet to have fun with. Pet ownership also teaches a child about being responsible for another living creature – feeding it timeously and clearing up its messes. Yes, pets can take up time and money but they offer so much more. The Big Thing is for the pet to belong to a child (not necessarily your oldest) and not to ‘the family’ as otherwise it becomes the parents’ responsibility. I would also recommend making the child wait quite a while before you get the pet – don’t ever get one on a whim. Get them to write an essay about all the reasons why they would make a great and responsible Pet Owner. Get the child to write up a contract of what they are committing to and sign it with witnesses. Make it a Big Deal so they don’t take it lightly. We got our 8 year old daughter to work out how much it would cost to buy the cat and necessary items like a cat basket. as well as the cost of spaying. We worked out a plan for her to do jobs around the home to earn the money and only once she had earned the entire sum did we look for the perfect cat. In addition to being responsible for caring for the cat she was the one who phoned the neighbour to make arrangements for holiday care when we went away and the one who went over with a thank you gift when we returned. We paid for the cat’s food and vet bills.

  13. I read somewhere that a dog costs $6,000 a year. That was the nail in the coffin.

    With 7 kids, my floors are never clean and my sofas are quickly ruined. I will get a large scary dog once the kids are gone, for company and security and to help with empty nest syndrome. That will totally piss them off won’t it? Lol.

    My daughter who begs the most for pets has already killed two fish by not cleaning the bowl enough.

  14. Natasha says:

    We have two dogs ages 11 and 7 and I deeply regret allowing my spouse and kids to convince me it was okay those many years ago. Like you, I don’t like the pet hair plus they vomit on my rugs and have ruined our wood floors. They bring my 3 kids much joy but I resent having to take care of them on top of 3 children and a career. So my vote is don’t do it! That said, if I had to do it over and still had to get a pet, one cat Sounds much better than my situation.

  15. MAR says:

    If you are leaning toward getting a dog or a cat, first, decide what that pet’s job will be within your family. I can only speak to owning a dog, but our dog’s job was to provide companionship to our children first and to us second. This determined what type of breed we chose. (We went with a lovable, friendly retriever.) Second, if you do go the dog route, you or your husband has to take the lead on the training because one of you has to be the “alpha.” Your young children will be “litter mates” to your dog. Also, one of you has to be home enough to do it. Training takes time, but consistency is what is most important. Along the way, as your dog is learning to walk on the leash, asking to be let out, waiting to be fed and learning basic commands, you will train the children on how to interact with your dog. Eventually, they can take over more of their pet’s care and they will want to do it because now the dog is a well behaved and much loved companion for them. Believe me, a well trained dog who understands their role in the family will bring you enough happiness and fond memories that you will overlook the fur, the scratched floors and the muddy paw prints. I went into dog ownership with doubts, but our family of five looks back on those 11 years with great fondness. Good luck on your decision.

  16. Ruth says:

    Oh my. Pets. We currently have FOUR cats and one LARGE dog. Not by choice. We had 2 older cats and we’re going to go petless by attrition, but our adult daughter moved to Baltimore and was unable to take her animals with her. They are all 4-5 years old, so I figured another 10 years of animals at least!

    The dog is the sweetest ever, but like all his kind, he needs constant attention – “Feed me! Play with me! Walk me! Let me outside to make a pile for you to clean up. And the hair!

    The cats are lower maintenance, but there’s the litter box (scoopable litter, change it once every couple of weeks, and no terrible smell), and the hairballs, and the throwing up because we’ve eaten too fast, and the HAIR.

    We have mostly hardwood floors, so I dust mop every day. And there is hair all over the furniture. And when they’re stressed, they scratch the upholstered furniture instead of the scratchers we have all over the house. I keep a lint roller in the car.

    That said, I love our cats, even the unplanned ones. They are less work than the dog, but don’t let anyone tell you they don’t need as much attention. It’s just a different kind of attention, and every cat has its own personality, so what works for one may not work for another.

    I think the suggestion to cat sit for a few days to a week is a good one.

    Dogs need to have someone home most of the time, and with both parents working, that’s hard.

    Pets are worthwhile, but you have to be realistic about the amount of care they require. Digs are like having

  17. Ruth says:

    Dogs are like having an eternal toddler in the house. Cats are more like teenagers.

  18. Ashley Barutt says:

    Gretchin Rubin had the same debate with her own family, and they ended up getting a dog. She went with the thought of “what makes my life richer? or what makes my life more full?” and that was how she got on board with getting a dog.

    • Aimee says:

      Yes!!! What is with all these pet-haters. Sure the cats shed everywhere and I hate the feel of their cat litter. But I couldn’t imagine life without my two cats. I grew up in a household where pets outnumbered people (2-4 cats and 2-4 dogs, plus 1-2 horses at any given time) and I think I’m a better, more empathetic person because we had pets. By the time I was 9, my brother and I did a lot of the care – feeding, letting the dogs out in the backyard, cleaning litter boxes – so Laura’s kids are plenty old enough to care for them.

  19. Tana says:

    Yes, Gretchen Rubin dealt with this debate and ended up getting a dog. We got a dog – same breed as hers – and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve had two dogs in the past and ended up rehoming them so I did lots of research before getting this one. He’s easily trainable, doesn’t shed, is fine without walks, and very pleasant to have around. Yes, we have to take him out to go potty, but if I didn’t do that, there are days when I’d never go outside. It provides a nice little break like I might take at work at the water cooler. A chance to check out the weather, yard, birds, etc. So I have found it a good deal all around.

  20. Debra says:

    First, let me share that I do not typically enjoy other people’s pets. That being said, I have inherited a cat, and I have a fish and a dog. The fish does nothing for our family, so it will not be replaced. I am on the fence about if I would another cat. But I will never be without a dog. As a runner, the dog offers security during my trail runs. And I really want to raise my two children (5 and 10) to be responsible and have compassion. There is nothing else that I do that drives these points home. My children are completely responsible for feeding the dog and cat (they forget about the fish). Since the bowls are right at the breakfast bar, it was easy to incorporate into their routine and would not be any more missed than brushing their teeth. As for the poop situation – we trained our dog to use the wooded area of our property. Problem solved. There are vet bills and extra food costs. And the first 21 days of dog ownership are hell (much like bringing home a baby – lots crying from everyone.) But it is worth it to spend the time to have a well-trained dog (done with a professional) for years to come. As for the kids –it is a sweet bond and gets them playing outside more often. When we go on vacations, we have multiple offers of pet sitting because our dog is so well-behaved. I think our neighbors might just like my dog more than they like me!

  21. Lynn says:

    We got a cat when my daughter was 3 and my son was 1. My daughter helped to feed and fill the water bowl and my husband and I did the litter box. We got a 2nd cat not long after that. Kids and cats got along fine (though my son did not want them in his room so we kept that door closed). When they were 5-7, they started doing the kitty litter themselves (with some help) which included sweeping the floor around it a few times a week.

  22. Gillian says:

    Oh my goodness! With four kids similar in age to yours and a full work schedule I cannot imagine adding a pet. We have neither the physical space or the emotional space to add a real pet at this time (we too have a fish). I know that I would end up the with care of a pet. My kids have asked a few times, but I think the writing is on the wall for them.

  23. TKL says:

    Ahhh… the pet debate. We had that going on in our house for a long time and we now have a snake, a rat and a dog. Though I don’t always love having all these pets (yes, the pet responsibility does fall to the parents), I have to say, the pets have been GREAT for our kids. The best thing about having pets is that kids learn how to behave around animals. My kids have learned how to read dog body language and interact appropriately. Also, they ADORE their pets, especially the dog, and I wouldn’t trade the work for the satisfaction they get from the relationship.

    We progressed gradually — first a snake, which requires very little work (feeding about once every 2 weeks, cage cleaning every few months) — then the rat, slightly more work, but not too much (feeding every day or two and cage cleaning once a week) and then the dog, which requires substantially more work. If you want low care with high rewards, I recommend a rat. They are extremely intelligent and trainable, very docile and friendly and our rat will sit with the kids for hours just hanging out in their laps. You do get a reward for effort though and dogs are the most rewarding of the three because the dog truly loves them and plays with them all of the time (no toy has held their attention like the dog, months later, they still constantly play with her).

    Cats can also be high reward pets, but I caution you about the hair issue (since you mentioned hair is an issue — it is for me too). The nice thing about dogs is they can be trained to stay off of furniture and counters (cats, not so much). There are even low-shedding breeds of dogs. The main work associated with dogs is exercising them, but since you are a runner, you might not need to add any new tasks to your daily agenda (just get a dog that is large enough to run miles each day).

    I think that kids actually get an undeserved bad rap on pets. People say that they lose interest quickly after acquisition. That is not my experience at all. Grown-ups needs to have realistic expectations about pet care responsibilities though and not assume kids will be reliable about doing the work. If pet care is a grown up responsibility, then kids can have very positive, long-term relationships with pets (for instance, your 9 year old will probably not clean the litter box without nagging, but he will love and play with the cat for years).

  24. Wendy says:

    We have a 2 kids, a business each and a dog. The dog has to be walked so i have to leave the office for an hour. I often run with him and some friends. Having him makes me exercise when i would rather not and makes me take time out to think. He comes with me to work and I do curse the dirt and hair but we are fortunate ro have cleaner and the dog has a kennel for when he is really filthy. The kids love him and now they are bigger we walk him together as a family at the weekends. When my husband is overseas (which is often) it gives me comfort and security to have a dog in the house. He is the one member of the family who generally does as he is told and doesn’t answer back!!

  25. Emily Hartung says:

    We have little kids in our house. The youngest was two when we brought home two one month old kittens! The younger kids learned to be gentle with them and really were overall great with it. Now they are older and the kids still grab them and play with them. However even when other small children come over and try to pull their tails etc. the cats handle it really well. They seem to know how to be gentle with little kids. I think cat is a great compromise. But kittens are even better because raising kittens is super easy and they are so cute. I would recommend getting two however because they really like companionship and they won’t get as overwhelmed by kid energy when it is split between the two of them. Besides what a great Christmas gift!

  26. michelle says:

    I am a single parent with three kids – and two dogs, two cats, two bunnies and a bearded dragon. I find the cats the hardest in lots of ways as they jump on benches, scratch the furniture and leave fur everywhere which i am continually vaccuuming up. The bunnies are basically ignored by my kids as they are not interactive enough. The dogs , while requiring more work bring the highest return. They dont shed any fur – i specifically chose breeds that dont. It takes less than a minute to feed them and they are happy with a quick walk – the younger one runs with me daily. The kids cuddle up with them, and for my daughter who suffers from anxiety – they have proven to be as beneficial as any councillor! Dogs do require some maintaining but if you are financially solvent then a lot of their basic needs can be outsourced -a nanny/ housekeeper can walk them, we have a mobile groomer who comes to our house every few months , my kids are happy to bath them and we have a poo patrol roster. They go to the vet once a year for vaccinations and thats about it. They love uncondirionally , are always happy to see you (unlike the cats) and the benefits to kids growing up with pets are well researched and documented. I believe the work is well and truely worth the return . Note though that a puppy is really hard work for the first six months or so !

    • @michelle (and everyone!) – thanks everyone for their comments on this. The idea of anything being extra work for the first six months is pretty much a deal killer for me. I cannot take on another creature right now. My son and I have had a discussion and we think there will be some experience gifts for Christmas this year, in place of getting a pet. More on this to come!

  27. sandrine says:

    We’ve had cats for a few years – since our son overcame his phobia of them, and my husband simultaneaously stopped being allergic. They are a lot of fun and know how to handle toddlers and smallies who might be a bit rough with them. They’re also not much work, especially if they can go outside (so you don’t need to change the litter). But they can be a menace for the first few months when they are still kittens, and experiment with peeing in pot plants, climbing on curtains, etc. (If you get one just after Christmas, you will save yourself a lot of cat in tree related trouble). The main hardships are taking them to the vet’s for their shots and sterilization, and of course, dealing with death when that happens. We lost a much loved cat a year ago and are still heartbroken. Our other cat was in a car accident shortly afterwards and had to spend weeks at the vet’s, and a new kitten decided to leave home a few months after we got him (he is fine, but living elsewhere on campus). But none of us would give up having cats because of this. Our remaining one is an important part of our family life.

  28. Steph says:

    We got a puppy last April and like every life change there have been positives and negatives to our experience. The negatives have been due mostly to the high energy breed we chose (border collie) and the fact that she was a puppy. This dog has literally destroyed every stick of furniture on the main floor of our house! She has also dug holes in our yard.But those are in my opinion outweighed by the positives – the change in my oldest daughter has been nothing short of miraculous. She keeps me company when my kids are in school and I’m working from home during the day and on walks and runs. She is so affectionate and always happy to see me. Love is why we have no regrets. A dog is unconditional love, and that has enriched our lives. Not everyone is dog lovers like our family, and I understand that. But a cat will never give love back the way a dog will.

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