Olivia Meikle grew up in a household of six children, and her mother’s firm rule was that no child could have more than three pets at a time (fish didn’t count; they could have as many of those as desired). That’s 18 pets! However, her mother also made it perfectly clear that pet care was the complete responsibility of the child. If a pet died because it was not taken care of, then the child did not get a "replacement" pet. Over the year, Meikle says, there were a lot of memorials in the family’s backyard.
As parents, we’ve all likely heard the passionate pleas from our children to adopt a pet. It might start with passing by an irresistible pet store, or envying a friend who has a cute, furry puppy. Whatever the initial reason, the pleading is usually pretty consistent and many families wind up as pet owners. All kinds of promises ensue, from feeding to walking to taking complete care of the animal, but all too often, the parents, not the children, end up caring for the pets. That’s why it’s a good idea to include all family members in the decision process so that everyone is invested in the responsibilities. One wise mother-of-four sat her family down to make a group agreement: "Family" pet means that all members of the family take some responsibility in caring for it, whereas “individual” pets involve more individual responsibilities.
The Petting Zoo
While Meikle doesn’t have the same pet rule – or tolerance – as her mother, she does welcome pets in her family’s home. Her three sons, Joseph (10), Simon (8), and Noah (5), share the responsibility of taking caring of their rabbits, turtles, fish, birds, frogs, and more. The two older boys alternate cleaning out cages and tanks as needed, and they each have their morning or evening feeding chores. Noah helps by providing veggies and table scraps as snacks for the rabbits. And while the boys don’t need much reminding to play with their pets, they have been seen “walking” the rabbits with leashes on a nice day, an endearing and somewhat amusing sight for neighbors.
Meikle does have helpful advice for those considering a rabbit for their kids, advice she wishes she had received herself. First, spend the extra RMB 100 or so on getting a dwarf rabbit, which is bred to be a pet. They have a calm disposition, don’t have a strong smell and don’t grow too large. The non-dwarf bunnies that look so cute in the store grow to be quite large, almost as big as a dog, explains Meikle. Secondly, she suggests a neutered male rabbit over a female one, because they are sweeter and calmer.
A Sense of Value
The Craigs are a family of four: Natalie Craig, her husband Dr. Jon Craig, and their kids, Emily (10) and James (9). Originally from the UK, they moved to Beijing 18 months ago, after living for some time in New Zealand and Dubai. The family recently got two 6-month-old female Miniature Schnauzers, Pippy and Poppy, from K.K. Animal Hospital. They also have several fish, given to them by friends who returned to Australia six months ago.
To take care of their pets, Emily and James follow a daily task list that involves walking, feeding, and training the puppies. Natalie keeps a chart, which the kids can tick when a chore is completed. Once a row is completed, Natalie pays them a lump sum instead of their weekly allowance. In this way, she hopes to instill the value of money in her kids. Natalie wishes that Emily and James were more involved with pet care, but she expects they will learn responsibility with time. Although the Craigs have an ayi who cleans, washes, and irons, Natalie says she is highly invested in managing the household.
“I’m a little old-fashioned,” she says. “I still cook and have every communication with the kids.” The ayi isn’t expected to walk the dogs, but she gives them a snack at lunchtime and checks that their water bowl is always full. She also provides company for them when Natalie is out during the day.
There are several challenges to raising a dog in Beijing. “The most obvious [challenge]is the walks,” says Natalie. “When we were in the UK, dogs were welcome in so many places: parks, forests, woods, and general pathways.” In addition, there’s always the risk of catching rabies from stray animals. For health care, they continue to use K.K. Animal Hospital because the staff is already familiar with their dogs. The family lives in a house with a reasonably-sized backyard, so exercising the dogs isn’t a problem.
Despite the challenges, Natalie is glad to have Pippy and Poppy. “Having pets is a great responsibility for the kids,” she says. “They bring a lot of joy and affection into the home and make it seem more [inviting].” Because her family has moved around a lot in the past, it has taken them a long time to take the plunge and adopt pets. Before they got the dogs, Natalie and Jon calculated the cost of pet care, grooming, food, and bringing them home to the UK to make sure they were making the right decision. “Flying a dog should never be taken for granted,” she says. “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas. We take pets seriously and hope others do, too. You get back what you put into them, which can be timely but [ultimately]very rewarding.”
In the end, each family must make their own decision on pet ownership as well as the role their children will have in the animal’s care and feeding. It’s best to weigh all the pros and cons of a family pet.
Paul and Joanne Koch, with their boys Parker (11), Devon (8) and Bennett (5), are dog-loving people. It was particularly tough to part with their chocolate Labrador Guinness, but pets weren’t allowed in their temporary housing in Beijing. Luckily, Guinness was returned to his former owners, so while it was sad for the entire family, he was left behind in good hands. The situation also led to the promise of getting a new dog when arriving in Beijing.
A friend took the Kochs to a local hutong area in Shunyi where she had been feeding some stray dogs. They immediately fell in love with a puppy that jumped into Paul’s arms and fell asleep. Shortly after, they saw another puppy that was being cared for by a mother cat, and they couldn’t resist that one either. Because they were strays, Paul and Joanne took both dogs for a full health screening at Doctors Beck and Stone Pet Health Care Center before taking them home to the boys. After they were cleared with a clean bill of health, the two dogs Sami and Katy were happily introduced to the rest of the Koch family.
The boys have shown great responsibility for much of the care, including feeding and taking the dogs on walks. The family’s ayi also walks them during the day and makes sure that there is dog food in the house. The kids’ primary concern is what will happen to the dogs when the family leaves Beijing, as they don’t want to leave Sami and Katy behind. A legitimate concern, says Paul, considering their most recent experience. But this time, they will most definitely be bringing the dogs with them to their next destination.
On the positive side, here are good reasons for your child to have a pet:
- Transition: School counselors say that an important factor during a transition is to keep things as “normal” as possible for a child. If there was a family pet in your previous home, adopting while in Beijing could help make a child’s overall transition much easier.
- Responsibility and nurturing: Having a pet gives children the opportunity to take pride and age-appropriate responsibility.
- Empathy and kindness: Children learn empathy by experiencing it themselves. This fosters their social skills, too.
- Health: Various studies indicate that having a pet early in life can actually curb the onset of allergies, contrary to what many might assume. Pets also lower blood pressure.
- Learning: Did you know that given a choice of reading aloud to parents versus reading to a pet, a young, self-conscious reader will choose the pet? Perhaps because pets are non-judgmental.