Does your family have a four-legged family member? Pets come in all shapes and sizes but one thing is for sure – they can become as important and as close to you as any two-legged human family member and they are brilliant for helping kids learn valuable life lessons.
A really cool thing happened to our family on December 25. Yes, the jolly fat man in red visited. Yes, there was a motherload of presents under the tree that morning. And yes, we all enjoyed a gorgeous day of good company and food-coma-induced afternoon naps. But, at 6.30pm, our family took pet ownership to a whole new level. We officially became chicken breeders.
We are animal people and pets have always been very special members of our family. For the past 10-odd years, ‘Winnie the Wonder-beagle’ has been more like a furry child than a furry mutt. She actually predates my two human children so was technically our first baby. We’ve gone on to raise more guinea pigs and African cichlid fish than you could poke a stick at and there was also an era of hermit crabs. But since moving to acreage three years ago (where we share our yard with wallabies, possums, amazing birdlife, goannas and more), our family has been overwhelmed by the love and friendship our chickens have provided. Yep, chickens. Who would’ve thunk it?
Our girls, aged 7 and 9, have learned lots of valuable life lessons from the pets they’ve owned – especially those chickens. They’ve learned responsibility for others. They’ve learned to prioritise. They’ve learned to understand and deal with grief and, most importantly, they’ve learned love. So deep is the girls’ love of their feathered friends that when our first broody hen, Daffodil, decided to sit on her first clutch of eggs and we worked out that those eggs were due to hatch while we were away on Christmas holidays, there was no question about it: Daffy and her eggs were coming with us to Stradbroke Island. McGyver-style, dedicated Dad fashioned up the “Chicken Transporter 2000” out of plastic tubs, zip ties and crab pot mesh and we packed Daffodil and her precious cargo into hubby’s contraption and then packed it into the back seat of our car amongst food, clothing, the dog and the real children. Daffodil and Co travelled with us by ferry to Straddie and moved into the laundry of our beach house. Easy. Kind of.
After noticing the first cracks in Daffodil’s first egg in the early hours of Christmas morning and listening to the faint cheeping coming from within the still-intact egg, it was a long day of watching and waiting and encouraging words before Jingle burst into the world, a wet, warm and gooey mess of silver fluff. With six excited ‘midwives’ on standby, there was much commotion in the laundry that night. I might have almost even cried (but don’t tell anyone!). And it all happened on Christmas Day. What better Christmas gift could you ask for?
According to Animal Emergency Services veterinary manager Alex Hynes, of Underwood, having pets can teach children many valuable lessons including responsibility and compassion.
“In having to care for an animal, kids learn that pets, like people, need food, shelter and love,” Dr Alex says. “It shows them what’s involved in caring for another living creature. Also, eventually all pets will die and for a child to learn what this means is a valuable life lesson.”
Dr Alex says studies have shown that pets can benefit a child’s self esteem. Kids who have grown up with pets are found to be more empathetic and had higher self worth. She shared a few tips for families deciding to launch into pet ownership for the first time:
- Involve children in the process of getting a pet, including deciding on the type of pet and setting that pet up in your home. This gives your kids a shared responsibility from the get go;
- Encourage children to participate in the regular feeding of your pet. This is a great way to get them interacting with the animal and forming a relationship while learning responsibility;
- Whilst sharing pet responsibilities with your children is important, parents may have to endure some of the less enjoyable jobs, such as cleaning. Particularly with young children, insisting that they always clean up after their pet can take the fun out of it and make the kids lose interest.
Ranger Stacey Thomson
Network Ten TV personality Ranger Stacey Thomson says pets are very important family members.
“Pets are such lovely companions,” she says. “Growing up with pets teaches children empathy and responsibility and how to care for others.”
The Totally Wild presenter has covered her fair share of animal stories across the 23 years she’s been associated with the popular show, and even in her 14-year career as a National Parks and Wildlife ranger and education officer, prior to TV. Ranger Stacey says the right family pet can come in many forms, depending on each family’s different situation. Among her Top 5 best pets for kids, Ranger Stacey lists dogs (“But it’s very important to choose that dog to suit the family”), guinea pigs (“They are such a good starting-point pet – they’re cute and pretty low maintenance”), cats, fish and reptiles (“They don’t take up a lot of space but you need to have the right enclosure and conditions”). While she hasn’t experienced them herself as pets, Ranger Stacey also says rats make great pets as they are “quite intelligent, responsive and surprisingly clean as they toilet in the one place”.
Ranger Stacey fondly recalls her own childhood growing up with pets including her first dog, a daschund named Tara, as well as her all-time favourite pet dog, Cobby, a pug. Nowadays, Ranger Stacey and her family, including her daughters Bridget, 15, and Madison, 12, enjoy life on Brisbane’s Bayside with their rescued dog Ralph, an eight-year-old “spunky, smart and full of energy” Maltese/Jack Russell cross.
Stacey encouraged others to be responsible pet owners by considering adopting a pet that needs a home, especially now, after Christmas, when the shine of a new puppy or kitten wears off and many are surrendered. “It’s such a rewarding thing to rescue a pet – who knows what would have happened to Ralph if we didn’t rescue him?” she says.
Dr Harry Cooper
Dr Harry Cooper has made his way into millions of Australian homes on TV shows such as Better Homes and Gardens, Harry’s Practice and Talk to the Animals. Based in rural New South Wales, Dr Harry also believes that pets make a wonderful addition to any family with children. When haven sat down to talk to Dr Harry, we asked his opinion on his Top 5 best pets for kids:
For young children, especially those aged 3-5 years, birds are great animals to entertain your kids and introduce them to the idea of having a pet. Dr Harry recommends getting either a budgerigar or a cockatoo. “It’s best to get a male bird before he goes into his fist molt,” he says.
Fish are ideal first pets for children who are afraid of animals or aren’t confident with them. “Kids can watch the fish in their tank without having to physically interact with them,” he says. In terms of the type of fish, Dr Harry recommends Siamese fighting fish as they are quite active and resilient.
- Guinea pigs
For children that bit older (5+ years), guinea pigs are a crowd favourite. According to Dr Harry, they are very child friendly as they don’t scratch or bite, and they are easy to handle. “The sex of the guinea pig doesn’t matter, but it’s better to get a short haired one rather than long,” Dr Harry advises. “They are quite low maintenance and their diet mostly consists of hay.”
Whilst they might not be a parent’s first idea for a pet, reptiles can make great friends. Bearded dragons, lizards and turtles are suited to children aged 10 years and over, particularly boys. The main advantage of most reptiles is that they’re quite low maintenance. “You can go away for the weekend and just leave some food and they’ll sort themselves out,” Dr Harry explains.
And, just like our family would tell you (following the amazing ‘birth’ of Jingle on Christmas night), Dr Harry’s final recommendation is that typically Aussie pet – chooks. Ideal for families in rural areas or with a decent backyard, Dr Harry says chickens provide kids with great interactive experiences and the excitement of collecting eggs. He recommends ISA Browns and bantams – they are quieter and lay more eggs with less food.
Dr Harry says some other great pet options include hermit crabs, stick insects and, despite their somewhat poor reputation, he agrees with Ranger Stacey on rats as great pets. Whatever you are considering for your first pet, or even for a second or third new (and different) pet, it’s best to head to your local pet store or veterinary clinic for advice. But if you have the space for them, our kids would encourage you to buy nine dozen chooks. And I might agree.