Fido vs. Fluffy

Heather Lofy
The Nusbaum family adopted Zoe, now 1½, last year. Pictured (from left) are: Ryan, Zachary, Erin and Jacob.

The age-old question “Can we get a dog?” probably ties with “Are we there yet?” as the most-frequent inquiry of childhood.

But how do parents know if and when their kids are ready for a pet? Rachel Finney, executive director for Columbus Humane (formerly the Capital Area Humane Society), said it's important to establish some basic expectations for the petand the family to be sure you're all in agreement. “Who will be responsible for exercising and feeding the pet?” Finney said via email. “What types of activities do you want to do with a pet? Who will care for the pet when you go on vacation? Our client care staff expertly works with families to see which of our available pets are a good match for each family's unique situation.”

Erica Woodard, general manager of Petland Hilliard, echoed the need for a family discussion. Decide whether you're in the financial position to take care of a pet, you have the time to devote to it and you have the outdoor space, if necessary. “A hermit crab does not take much time, space or resources, but a bird requires more time and attention,” she said. “If you already have pets, it's important to think about a second pet that will be able to cohabitate with your current family pet.”

Erin and Ryan Nusbaum of Gahanna had a Yorkshire terrier named Fender before they had kids. As Fender got older and so did their boys—Zachary is now 7 and Jacob is 4—they considered adding another pup to their brood. “We thought it would be a good time to introduce a puppy so it could grow up alongside the kids,” Erin Nusbaum said. “We felt like Fender was our dog, but wanted the kids to have a dog for themselves.”

Last year, the Nusbaums adopted Zoe, a first-generation goldendoodle puppy. “My husband grew up with a golden retriever and liked their temperament,” Nusbaum said. “They're a good family dog, but the concern was dog hair and allergies. I did research, and came across goldendoodles. … My husband has asthma, and both boys have asthma and allergies.”

If allergies are a concern in your house, or you're interested in a pet other than a dog or a cat, there are plenty of options. Hermit crabs, rabbits, birds, fish, hamsters and reptiles all are possibilities, even if you have a packed schedule. “Some reptiles, like bearded dragons, leopard geckos and corn snakes, make excellent pets,” Woodard said. “They are relatively low-maintenance, interactive and have fascinating behaviors.”

But there is a caveat: Reptiles and amphibians can carry salmonella, and transmit the bacteria to humans. Woodard recommends following the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's safe-handling guidelines, which state children younger than 5, adults older than 65 and anyone with a weak immune system should not touch reptiles or amphibians.

If your child has special needs, a pet may bring additional questions or hesitations. Kelsey Smucker, director of operations at CHA Animal Shelter in Columbus, said bringing a child to a shelter to interact with the animals is a great way to see if it's the right time to take a furry friend home. “In those cases, we usually will counsel those adopters to consider an older animal,” she said. “Sometimes we find the adult animals can understand the children better than fragile kittens or puppies.”

Getting kids involved in a pet's care also can help foster a sense of dependability and trustworthiness. “Having Zoe allowed us to introduce responsibilities like letting her out and feeding her, which they both can do and want to do,” Nusbaum said of her sons. “And they love giving her playtime.”