Playing During Pandemic – Part Seven – Pets

The requirements of social distancing are raising havoc with children’s mental health. Researchers are concerned that this may have lifelong damage.

SummarySocial isolation experienced during childhood has an impact on adult brain function and behavior. Following two weeks of social isolation immediately following weaning in male mice, researchers noticed a failure in activation of medial prefrontal cortex neurons projecting to the posterior paraventricular thalamus during social exposure in adulthood. Findings suggest medial prefrontal cortex neurons required for sociability are profoundly affected by social isolation at a young age.

While the best remedy for this is for kids to be able to play in close contact again, that opportunity is still in the future and will be slow becoming anywhere close to pre-COVID normalcy. What can a parent do?

Pets have always been a part of children’s social and emotional life. During the pandemic there has been a surge in adoptions and shelters are finding that animals that would have certainly been euthanized are now finding homes. This means that if you are looking for a pet your choices are limited. While dogs and cats are the go-to option, I will argue that they may in some respects not be best suited for the current situation.  Why?

Dogs and cats are traditionally seen as members of the family and their care is a family responsibility. When kids choose alternative pets, those animals are generally considered the responsibility of the child. This change in status has life and death consequence which has profound impact on the relationship between the child and their pet. Put in the bluntest terms, if the child does not care for their pet, the pet will die.

Homes often have these alternative pets, ranging from goldfish to rats. Because of their shorter lifespans and more fragile nature, all of these animals will die during their caregiver’s childhood.  While tragic at the time, these deaths are a good thing, as the experience is profound and illuminates one of life’s deepest experiences. How you handle this inevitability will be a real test of your parenting skills. I suspect that this is one reason that parents are often reluctant to take on one of these alternative pets because they know that a difficult day of reconning is sure to follow.

The existential relationship between the child and alternative pet is therefore substantially different than it is with a dog or cat because of the inherent responsibility of the child that is a fundamental condition. The pet will die, hopefully of old age, but it is more often because of neglect, which in itself is a deep life lesson. Less often but more instructive are those deaths that come from a lack of knowledge about the needs of the animal.

From the standpoint of learning, one of the best pets for kids are fish. Fish require a balanced environment in which nutrition, air, light and temperature have to be balanced in a very narrow set of parameters. A fish tank is a dynamic lesson in ecology that helps children get a deep and person understanding of the larger world around them. The problem with fish is that they are not at all cuddly. That shortcoming can be mitigated to some extent by choosing an assortment fish species that have an active social life or will reproduce and thereby increase the child’s engagement.

The best choice for a cuddly pet, other than a dog or cat, is a rat. While many have an aversion to rats, they are incredibly smart, playful and robust. Rabbits and guinea pigs can be good pets as they will play with cats and dogs but are not nearly as smart or trainable as rats. Hamsters and mice have the benefit of breeding well but don’t have much in the way of play value to offer. Parakeets and budgies are fun and, with training and proper handling, can be good choices.

The main goal here is that the child must make the selection and do the work to keep the animal alive and thriving. Whichever animal selected be sure that it has been bred in captivity. This means exotic animals such as saltwater fish are out as are many reptiles and amphibians.

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