In April 2020, the pandemic was already hitting my tween and toddler hard. In addition to being separated from loved ones for an indefinite amount of time, we’d recently lost my father and said goodbye to our beloved dog. We had been searching for a small rescue pet to adopt even before the world came to a standstill, and as the months of confinement and isolation dragged on, our family was anxious to become pet owners once again. We were overjoyed when a friend pointed us to a litter of terrier puppies, and we felt so fortunate to welcome our new two-pound companion that after much deliberation, we settled on the name Lucky.
We weren't alone in wanting a new furry BFF. Over the last year, many animal shelters have been inundated with requests, reporting that almost as soon as they post a puppy or kitten for adoption, they’re finding a new home. With millions of homebound Americans suddenly seeking pets, including guinea pigs and even goats, breeders and adoption organizations started running out of animals to hand off and began maintaining waiting lists for new arrivals — a novel, if wonderful, situation.
New pets caused a bump in the pet care industry, notes the American Pet Products Association, and spending on pet food, live animals, supplies, treats and vet care bumped up to $99 billion in 2020, up from $90.5 billion in 2018. That’s a lot of happy fish, birds, lizards and puppies and kittens.
But adding an animal to a household with kids isn’t as easy or simple as picking out a pet and buying them a couple of toys, bowls and a cozy bed. Animals require serious commitment, and families need to go into the adoption or purchase process with eyes wide open, maybe even more so now, during a pandemic, when tempers are frayed, space is tight and many are feeling the stress of life and work interrupted.
It’s also critical to consider, before taking the plunge, what will become of Fluffy when you’re not all stuck at home any longer. Will you still have the time, energy and desire to care for the pet adequately, once you’re all back behind your respective desks, and out on the open road?
In our home, Lucky’s arrival a month into the pandemic and lockdown was chaotic; he was delivered in a small crate shivering and terrified. But as soon as we pried the door open, he wiggled right out, peed on my leg in his excitement and showered the whole family with snuggles and affection. We got lucky — no pun intended.
From the start, our pup has been sweet, patient with our hyper toddler and a quick learner. But the chaos of raising a puppy in a pandemic was no small matter. As if potty training a 2-year-old boy wasn’t challenging enough, we were soon potty training the pet alongside him, and hardly an hour went by without some puddle of urine or poop needing to be mopped up. Plagued with even less sleep than before, a pup with separation anxiety/chronic digestive issues and a tween suddenly reluctant to put any effort into helping with pet care, my husband and I started to question our decision. When I severely sprained and dislocated my ankle and was unable to chase the toddler or help at all with the dog, the mayhem in our house reached epic levels. Should we have adopted a "pandemic pet" at all?
While the benefits of pet ownership are always many, for any family, the comfort these animals bring, the close contact they enjoy, the hours of screen-free activity they provide and their non-judgmental, unconditional love for the humans who care for them seem to be increasingly important for kids’ social-emotional health, development and wellbeing during these times. And our family is not alone in both benefiting from (and struggling with) a new pandemic pet.
In Arlington, VA, Lauren Woods’ family has added two guinea pigs and a hamster to their small apartment home. “We love them,” she says. “The pets have not only changed our lives but the whole courtyard where we live, as all the kids come out when they run around outside.”
But with that joy comes some extra responsibility. Evie Nagy, a mom in Oakland, CA, got a pandemic kitten the day after one of their two older cats passed away last year. “I've had many kittens in my life but not in a decade, and I forgot how energetic they are,” Nagy admits. “But when she calms down she's so sweet and affectionate, and we really need that. It's also the first pet my kids, who are now 6 and almost 9, will have raised themselves, so they're extra obsessed. They treat the kitten kind of like a stuffy that they can pick up and play with whenever they want, and that causes a lot of squabbles between them and with us.” It’s a struggle many other parents, like us, are grappling with, with small pets and small children all confined at home together.
Mindy Haskins Rogers in Western Massachusetts raves about the adorable guinea pig they rescued last year from their local Humane Society. “It was a big deal for my only child,” she says. “I am allergic to everything, but I figured a pet in an enclosure would be less likely to spread dander around the house. We also bought an air purifier,” she says, which has been helping keep allergies manageable despite the new housemate.
“Taking care of an innocent, sweet animal has been an antidote to the stress and isolation we experience as a high-risk household,” she adds. “For my child, the experience has provided lessons in responsibilities and in boundaries, as he works to gain the guinea pig's trust. The ritualized nature of feeding and cleaning times has unexpectedly added family time to our day, too.”
Jayme Kennedy, from Upland, CA, acquired a couple of Nigerian dwarf goats, named Dobby and Hopper, and believes it’s the “best thing we ever did.”
“The goats have delivered such a boost to our household’s spirit,” she says. “Plus they’ve given us so much to do, in terms of taking care of them. And they are so much fun! So affectionate and silly, and they get along swimmingly with our three dogs,” an added benefit.
Not all pet stories end on an all-positive note, however. For many families during the pandemic, the struggles they faced after welcoming a new animal, which range from allergies to financial strain, conflicts with existing pets or the new animal’s lack of compatibility with kids in the household, have forced parents to make the difficult decision to return or re-home their new addition — a painful, stressful added strain which can even feel like an added trauma for some kids, on top of the pandemic itself.
The Wright family in New York went through a difficult ordeal after bringing home a third guinea pig last spring. “Rosie and I went to the pet store during the initial days of quarantine, and made an impulsive purchase,” shares Matthew Wright, the father, explaining that his daughter missed seeing her friends, and he wanted to lift her spirits. “My wife was not happy, but Rosie had a smile from ear to ear,” he says.
Unfortunately, five months and $1,500 later spent to cure ringworm and care for injuries inflicted during fights with the existing two guinea pigs, the family was told Snickers needed surgery to amputate an infected limb. “He was really sick and I’d been feeding him with a syringe, and giving him medicine three times a day, which took at least a half hour each time,” Wright says. The surgery would have been another major expense, but without it Snickers would die, and the family was at a loss. Thankfully, one of the veterinary technicians familiar with the case was willing to adopt the guinea pig — but sharing the news of his permanent departure with Rosie wasn’t easy for her father, even if the child understood they couldn’t keep their new pet.
Shannon Shea’s family in Rockville, MD, had challenges, too, when they took in a rabbit they’ve named Hoppity. “It's been a little more stressful because it's another responsibility that we need our older son, age 7, to do, but teaching responsibility was part of the reason we got the bunny,” she says. “There's conflict in the morning over feeding him, as it's supposed to be my son's job. But he has some executive function challenges that are particularly hard in the morning with getting ready for school. So we judge the situation day-by-day.” The other major issue, she notes, has been Hoppity jumping up on her son's bed and peeing on it as a sign of marking his territory.
But the family has, for the most part, been able to surmount these problems. Shea says it's important to set clear expectations, but remain flexible. “In the beginning, we also had some challenges in terms of boundaries and how we treat the bunny respectfully,” she notes. “Once my kids learned how to be more gentle, that tension was mostly gone.” They’ve also figured out how to stop the destructive pet behavior with strategic placement of storage bins and lids.
C. Annie Peters, President and CEO of Pet Partners, the nation’s leading organization registering therapy animals for animal-assisted interventions, raves about the emotional benefits and support of pets in homes. “Pets have been shown to support social interaction and reduced aggression in children,” she says. “They can help decrease stress and anxiety, and are non-judgmental sources of support and companionship.” Just the support we all need extra doses of, these days.
The months have gone by, our puppy is almost full-size now and things have been looking up. Our daughter helps walk and feed and train Lucky regularly, our toddler is learning to be more gentle, and we all reap enormous amounts of joy and comfort from our little friend. Like many other families, despite the hiccups, our lives are enriched, made more fun, more playful and filled with so much more joy and affection by Lucky that we are still grateful for having him, despite all the diarrhea. (Except, at moments, maybe my husband, who is usually stuck picking up after the pup).
Questions to Ask Yourself Before Getting a Pet
Do we have the space for this pet?
Can the pet’s needs be met in the amount of free time I have each day?
Will this pet get along with my kids?
Will this pet get along with my other pets?
Will I be home enough to care for this pet? Do I travel too much?
Who will take care of this pet when I’m away?
How much will it cost to take care of this pet? Am I willing to spend that much?
How much activity does this pet need? Does that agree with my lifestyle?
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