Recently I came across a question on one of the facebook groups that I frequent for single moms. A mom was soliciting advice about getting a pet for her 7 year old son.
This mom has 2 other kids, ages 2 and 4, and she is separated from their father. The therapist suggested that a pet might be nice for her son.
If ever there was a question in my wheelhouse…this is it! As a divorce coach and a veterinarian, I have some wisdom here. I thought I would share it with the rest of my community in case you too are considering a pet for your kids.
The harsh truth of puppies
No one loves a puppy like I do, but I will be the first person to talk you out of getting one. Here is the truth about puppy ownership – it feels a lot like having another baby. If you have the bandwidth for another toddler in the house, one you cannot take your eyes off for about 8 months, (unless you have the fortitude to crate the baby), then by all means go for it.
Here is another truth about puppies. They are highly unpredictable creatures. The unpredictability is cute to most adults – barking, nipping, chasing – but pretty upsetting for most children under age 10. I find this especially true for boys under 10, who may not have the tolerance for normal puppy behaviour. Doubly true for young boys on the Autism Spectrum – again in my wheelhouse.
On the flip side, once you get past the first year of puppydom, it is often smooth sailing. Still a lot of maintenance in terms of exercise and veterinary expenses, but typically the benefits outweigh the deficits. Dogs become an integral family member and often the softest place for your children, who may be struggling with the divorce, to fall. Most dog owners will tell you that the investment was well worth it the heavy start up costs.
How about an adult dog?
The beauty of adopting a mature dog is that they are often house trained, and you don’t have to contend with the shenanigans of puppyhood. This is the route that I chose for my 10 year old boy on the Autism Spectrum. I needed a very steady predictable dog, not a wild pup.
The negative, of course, is the unknown factor. As long as you adopt with a trial period, you have an escape valve you can utilize.
Either way, you are signing on for a project, so you need to have the time and desire to make this successful. Single mom with 3 kids under 7 would not be a good fit in my humble opinion.
How about a cat?
If you have never owned a cat, you will have trouble conceptualizing that cats can be as loving as dogs, without all the work. No house training, no walking, no crating. They are pretty much plug-and-play. They know to use a litter box as their bathroom, and otherwise just feed and love.
I know this will be a big leap of faith for us adults who have grown up with a dog, but trust me on this one. Cats are divine pets, especially if you luck into one who has the persona of a dog. There are actually many like this, and in my experience they tend to be male, domestic (not purebred), black strays that sit unwanted in the shelter. They just seem to have an immense gratitude when they are adopted that makes them delightfully affectionate.
The decision to get a pet
I have a feeling that many single parents consider purchasing or adopting a pet for their kids out of a feeling of guilt. I get it…I am a single mom who struggled with my son being exposed to the most toxic divorce on the planet. It sucks. But here is the thing – a pet is not going to change that. It may provide a diversion, unconditional love, but the circumstance will still be the same.
Getting a pet is a big decision with a long term commitment, so you need to like your reasons. Assuaging your guilt may not cut it.
Don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional – or better yet – a double professional like me, for some good advice. It would be my greatest pleasure to coach you through this big decision.