A number of studies have concluded that children who are raised with animals (and whose interactions with them are supervised adequately) reap many benefits of pets. They learn responsibility and how to give and receive love. They develop social skills, including impulse control, empathy, kindness, and patience. Their self-esteem and self-confidence grows. And they have constant access to an always available friend and playmate.

And the benefits of pets doesn’t end there. Recent research even shows that babies who are exposed to pets when very young are less likely to develop allergies and obesity. And pets (especially dogs) have been shown to help developmentally delayed children learn.

This is all great news if you’re one of the 68 percent of U.S. households (85 million U.S. families) that own at least one pet. But what if you’re one of the 32 percent that does not have a family pet? You can make sure your kids reap many of these pet-associated advantages. You just need to get a little creative!

Get to Know Others’ Pets

If your children are begging for a kitten or puppy and you simply can’t or don’t want to relent, the next best thing is to create opportunities for them to have pet time outside your home.

  • Volunteer at a local animal shelter. Sadly, there is no shortage of dogs and cats and puppies and kittens (and, often, rabbits, Guinea pigs, and ferrets as well) who would welcome one-to-one attention from a caring child. Shelters’ volunteer requirements vary, but you’ll probably have no trouble finding one that would be happy to have your child (perhaps supervised by you) visit with the residents.
  • Offer to care for neighbors’ pets. Many pet owners work outside the home and must leave their pets alone for hours on end (sometimes crated.) If you have neighbors who work and own pets, offer to care for them during the day. You and your child can walk dogs or simply pet and play with dogs, cats, and other pets.
  • Volunteer at pet adoption events. PetSmart is one example of an organization that sponsors regular dog and cat adoption events—which are only possible with assistance from dedicated volunteers!
  • Visit dog parks. Dogs and their humans who frequent dog parks tend to be friendly and open to cuddles from curious children.
  • Become a foster family. If you’re not restricted from pet ownership by your living situation, but simply aren’t ready to commit to it, why not consider fostering a pet? Most pet rescue groups rely on foster families to host pets until they find permanent adoptive families.

Get a Pet that Fits Your Family

The most effective way you can help your pet-free family reap the rewards of pets is to become a pet-owning family. Even if you’re a renter prohibited from owning a dog or have a family member with a cat or dog allergy, there are other relatively low-maintenance, non-allergenic options, including hermit crabs, lizards, hamsters, and gerbils. Just keep in mind, hamsters can be little Houdinis (and some are biters.) If you go this route, choose your cage carefully and spend time handling different hamsters at the pet store so you know you’re getting a friendly one.

At the very least, you might commit to a goldfish! Of course, fish need proper care and a good environment, but they may be easier to manage for some families and allergies are not a problem. With fish, your kids will learn responsibility—they’ll need to feed the fish and help you clean the tank periodically. You’ll have opportunities to teach them about science such as how fish can live underwater. And watching fish has been shown to reduce stress and improve mood!

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