Veterinary nurses can ensure that pet ownership is a beneficial experience for children by educating the parents about the needs of a chosen pet, suggesting suitable preven-tative treatments and encouraging families to take part in puppy and kitten classes. Veterinary nurses should have the capacity to be informative about the stages at which children are able to take on certain responsibilities of pet ownership and should advise parents of the dangers of leaving a young child with a pet unsupervised. The veterinary nurse may sometimes be required to give advice to parents on how to help their child cope with pet bereavement.
Many parents must be grateful to their pets for providing sex education for their children without causing them too much embarrassment, but pets can be educational in other life experiences too. Often children experience bereavement for the first time through the loss of a pet and, so long as the child is allowed to work through the grieving process, this can provide a balanced approach to coping with the deaths of close relatives or friends that may occur in the future. A greater sense of nature can be learned through owning companion animals, and children will have a better understanding of welfare that can be applied to all animals and not just pets.
According to Endenburg and Baarda (1995), pet ownership encourages the development of social and emotional skills and may enhance cognitive and learning powers in children (Poresky & Hendrix 1988). By helping to care for a pet a child can acquire nurturing skills and, when praised by an adult for performing a task well, will build up self-esteem. However, it is important that a child is supervised in the care of pets and is never given a task beyond the capabilities of its age. Fogle (1983) suggests that 10 years is the minimum age that a child can be expected to fully take care of an animal. One of the many benefits that a pet can give a child is unconditional love, particularly when the child is upset, in disfavour with parents or having problems at school. Often the child is able to talk about their problems to a pet when they feel unable to communicate with another person. Unfortunately, a pet can only give affection in return and therefore should only be considered as part of a support network (Endenburg & Baarda 1995). Through regular interaction with a pet, a child will develop an awareness of the pet's needs and, while this may be criticized for being of an anthropomorphic nature, it has been noted that children who own pets have a greater empathy for the emotional and physiological needs of fellow human beings (Fig. 1.2). It is believed that pets can influence cognitive development because they are willing and patient listeners and are attractive verbal stimuli.
Statistics show that the percentage of households with pets is significantly higher in families with children from the age of 6-15 years (Bonas et al 2000). Cats and dogs are often considered as family members and will instigate more social interaction within the home. The number of family households with pets may also be synonymous with the number of families in which both parents work and, in this case, an animal can provide company for children and a feeling of security when they are alone in the house.
It has been observed that most pet-owning adults have had companion animals as children and it would be safe to assume that this has been the case for most veterinary nurses. The benefits to children derived from pet ownership are entirely dependent on the responsibility of the parent and negative learning can result from the parent being unwilling or unable to supervise the welfare of the animal. A child might learn to fear certain species either through a bad experience of their own or through experiencing a parent's fear of an animal. Fear, deferred anger or the imitation of adults may lead to the abuse of animals and it is the role of people in the veterinary profession and those working in animal welfare to educate families in responsible pet ownership.
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