Growing up with a pet can be a wonderful experience – pets provide children with company and unconditional love as well as teaching them responsibility and how to care for another living being.
These days, pets are considered valued members of the family, but remember that a dog or cat may share your life for many years, so choosing the right one is very important.
It is hard to be definitive about breed selection because all dogs and cats are individuals and, although breeds have common behaviour characteristics, their temperaments can vary enormously. Just as important as selecting the breed is the individual temperament of the animal and the way it is socialised and managed by you. To complicate things further, many of the cats and dogs fall into the categories of “mongrels” or “mutts”- crossbreeds, whose breed is often difficult to define but they can make great pets.
The main things to think about before choosing a dog or cat for your family are:
the type of lifestyle you lead
the age of your children
the type of accommodation you live in
the amount of time you spend at home
the amount of exercise you can give your pet
how much time and money you’re prepared to spend on your pet
All of these things will influence the way you interact with your pet on a daily basis and determine whether you meet each other’s needs.
Many breeds of dog have been developed for a specific purpose and this can have a large impact on the way they behave around people.
The most popular dog breeds in South Africa
Staffordshire Bull Terrier
Chihuahua (smooth coat)
Working breeds, such as St. Bernards, Doberman Pinschers or Border Collies, have been bred to herd and chase and even nip, they are very energetic and have a strong instinct to herd. These breeds of dog frequently become bored in a suburban backyard and can become over-excited around children. They are more suited to the active family with teenage children who include their dog in their outdoor activities.
Guarding breeds such as German Shepherd Dogs, Maremmas, Rottweilers, Dobermans and Akitas can be very protective and, although loyal and safe with their own family members, can sometimes resent outsiders coming into their territory. This could potentially cause problems with visiting friends. On saying this, I have seen individuals of all these breeds that are truly wonderful with children.
Some people mistakenly believe that they are better off to buy a small dog. This is not always the case, as many small dogs are intimidated by children’s behaviour and may not be comfortable being chased by a toddler. This can result in snapping. Also, most small terriers like Jack Russells and Fox Terriers, are very energetic and love to chase and catch things. This can be problematic when kids are involved.
It is essential that any large dog has a good level of basic obedience, otherwise his/ her sheer size will be a problem as it is easy to knock a small child over.
As a general rule your family should try to buy a dog with a low activity level and, because most families with young children are time poor, choose a dog that won’t require a lot of grooming.
Try to meet both parents of your potential pup - temperament is partly inherited so if either parent is shy or aggressive, then avoid. If both parents are delightful with kids, you are heading the right way.
It is essential that your pup/ dog is well-socialised with humans and other animals.
Every dog should receive some basic obedience training and know how to sit, stay, drop and come when you call it.
Firm ground rules must be laid down for your dog, but children must also learn to follow rules, such as not patting your dog when it is sleeping or eating.
Children need to understand that a dog is not a toy and must be treated appropriately.
Although the individual personality of each dog differs widely depending on its genetics as well as upbringing, the following breeds generally have a good temperament around children:
Cats are slightly easier to choose; the vast majority of cats are domestic cats of no specific breed, and pure breeds of cat will adjust well to family life. Some breeds of cats such as Abyssinians and Burmese are usually playful and energetic and adapt well to a life with active children. Others such as Siamese can be very vocal and demanding of attention, so not necessarily the best choice. Be sure to do some research if you want a purebred and ask the breeders opinion about whether the breed is kid friendly.
Cats are a lot more independent than dogs and some cats just do not want to socialise with kids – it is best to just give them the space that they want and not try to force your children upon them.
Try to choose a kitten that seems interested in people and is happy to be held.
Avoid kittens or cats that are very shy or growl and hiss when you approach.
If you have young children, consider adopting a kitten older than four months. Young kittens are very tiny and could easily get hurt.
Adopting a mature cat is a great option for a family. Ideally, adopt a cat where you have a good idea of its history and know that it has previously lived in a family environment. Failing this, spend as much time as possible with the cat prior to the adoption, and see how well it interacts with your children.
The most popular cat breeds:
Where to Get Your New Pet
If you’re having trouble choosing between breeds, it can be useful to attend a dog or cat show. You’ll be able to see how the various breeds appear and behave all in one spot, and you can talk to the breeders about the suitability of their breed for your family.
Remember to always buy purebred animals from registered breeders.
When it comes to crossbreds, many wonderful dogs and cats in need of a home can be found in welfare shelters such as the NSPCA, WetNose and Kitty and Puppy Haven all have pets available and many of these facilities will help you to choose an appropriate pet for your family (see below for a more extensive list).
If you are considering adopting a pet, you can also visit Aniwell or the NSPSA. They have animals from welfare agencies, pounds, the public, vet clinics, breeders and pet shops all waiting for someone to love them. For a nominal fee, you will adopt a cat or a dog that has been sterilised, dewormed and with all their shots up to date.
Please make sure you take plenty of time to find the right pet for your family. Manage them responsibly and lovingly, and your family will be rewarded with unconditional love, loyalty and companionship.
Here are some links for further reading:
South Africa Dog Breeder's Gallery - top 10 most popular breeds
Kennel Union of Southern Africa
For more information see Kids and animals or Parenting.