Should You Get Your Toddler a Pet?

By Nicole Gregory

If you’re hesitant about getting a pet for your toddler because of the extra work and cost involved, consider this: Experts say that the benefits of having a pet for a small child can be far-reaching, helping to build confidence, self-esteem and compassion. In the relationship with a pet, a toddler can learn her first lessons about loyalty and trust.

How does this all happen? With you at your child’s side, of course. Small children are naturally drawn to animals, and they first learn how to treat them by watching you. Do you swat the cat out of the way? Curse at the dog? “A toddler will watch how you hold the animal and how you pet it. This is a great chance for you to model kindness,” says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of Building Moral Intelligence (Jossey-Bass, 2002), who appears regularly on NBC’s Today as a parenting expert.

Actions have consequences

“Having a pet helps toddlers—who are by nature egocentric—to begin to understand the bigger world around them,” says Borba. Many toddlers will respond to a small animal with love and affection. But they may also be tempted to see what happens when they give the cat’s tail a yank or the pet mouse an extra squeeze. “Toddlers see that their actions have an impact on a pet,” says Borba. “Point out the consequences by saying something like ‘If you pull the dog’s hair, it hurts him, but if you pet the dog softly, he’ll wag his tail.’”

For the sake of your child’s safety as well as the pet’s, you need to be present to explain how certain behaviors are not okay because they hurt others. How you as a family respond to the events that come up in life with a pet—taking it to the vet when it’s sick, training it, making sure it is safe, etc.—can demonstrate your family’s values, such as caring for nature or helping the weakest among us.