Mr Pragalathan Ramiah and his wife, Lalitha, train their daughters Shaistha, nine, and Tishah, four, to help care for their pet dog and two cats. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

It is a common story: A child clamours for a pet and is initially enthusiastic about the cuddly creature. But, within months, the care of the animal is left wholly to the parents or the family’s domestic helper.

Some parents, however, hope to bring about a happier ending by getting their children involved in daily tasks and making them see that a pet is a long-term commitment.

Caring for family pets

When Shaistha Pragalathan was seven, her mother asked her to take the family dog for a morning walk for the first time. She came back after five minutes. It was 6.30am and she did not want to stay longer as it was too dark under their apartment block.

It was her first foray into caring for her family’s pets. Her mother, Mrs Lalitha Pragalathan, felt that Shaistha was ready for the responsibility because she herself was about six when her mother got her her first pet – on the condition that she cared for the dog herself.

Child wakes at 5:30am to feed cats

Shaistha, who is now nine (as of time of interview in 2017) has since established her pet care routine. She is usually awake by 5.30am to feed dry cat food to their two felines: Citrine, a Siamese cat, and Mr White, a mixed-breed cat.

She also changes the cat litter and takes their 11-year-old Labrador, Shakira, for its morning walk. These tasks take about 25 minutes before she leaves for school.

Children feed fishes every day

Her younger sister also helps care for their pets. Tishah, then four, takes turns with Shaistha to feed their tropical fish and black goldfish daily, though Shaistha checks first to see if any fish has died.

Child feeds community cats

The younger girl also accompanies their mother when she takes the dog for a walk every night, during which they also feed stray cats in the neighbourhood. It was Tishah’s idea to take a bottle of water along, to let the strays have a drink.

Mother prepares pets’ food

Mrs Pragalathan, who is studying full-time for a diploma in business and information management, is the main person in charge of the family’s pets and her duties include preparing home-cooked food for them.

Instils sense of responsibility in children

Being hands-on in caring for their pets instils a sense of responsibility and discipline in her children, and also aids their character development, says Mrs Pragalathan, who is married to corporate trainer Pragalathan Ramiah.

Child alert to dog’s daily needs

Shaistha, for instance, has become sensitive to their dog’s needs. One night last year, when she was up late watching television, she realised Shakira was uncomfortable and told her mother. The two of them took the dog downstairs at about 2am for it to relieve itself.

Teach children to respect all beings

Having the children care for their pets also helps them to learn to “respect every living thing,” says Mrs Pragalathan, who has worked with animals in various jobs since she was 18, in organisations such as the Jurong Bird Park and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Singapore.

Teach children to respect all animals

This respect extends to animals that live in public spaces, for example, not allowing young kids to chase birds, she adds. While children should help care for their pets, age-appropriateness is important, say animal welfare experts.

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Brothers Lucas (left) and Lewis Tan help to feed and clean their three house rabbits. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR 
Brothers Lucas (left) and Lewis Tan help to feed and clean their three house rabbits. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR 

Before getting a pet…

Before getting a pet, parents should ensure that their child shows “an understanding of the pet’s needs and an appreciation of an owner’s responsibilities”, says Ms Chong Poh Choo, executive manager for community outreach at the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA).

5 Year old children too young for pets

She adds: “Generally, children who are aged four to five are too young to have a pet as they lack maturity. Older children may be developmentally mature, but may not be ready to commit to caring for a pet if they are busy with schoolwork and a developing social life, for instance.”

Only ages 9 and above

She suggests that younger children, from pre-school age to about nine years old, take on simple chores such as feeding the pet, ensuring it has enough water and brushing its fur. Older children can help clean the cage or tank.

Entire family should be involved in caring for pet

She emphasises that the whole family should be involved in the care of pets, with parents taking the lead. “A pet is for life. All family members should be willing to contribute to the upkeep of a pet before getting one,” she says.

Parents must be main caregiver of pet

“Parents should not expect children to be the primary caregiver of any pet. Children need the support of their parents in many ways. They will be unable to tell, for instance, if the pet is unwell.”

Children often need to be reminded to take responsibility for their pets.

Try fostering before buying pet

Fostering an animal is one way to get children used to the amount of care a pet needs.

Child & parents foster dog before adopting

Ten-year-old Siana Assi had wanted a dog, her favourite animal, for years and this longing intensified after some of her friends got dogs for Christmas last year.

Her stay-at-home mother Sasha Assi, 44, says she and her husband, lawyer Gupinder Assi, 43, decided on fostering to make sure Siana’s desire was no “flash in the pan” and that she and her brother, Krishan, eight, would help care for their own pet.

Causes for Animals Shelter

For a few weeks, they fostered two dogs from a shelter run by Causes for Animals (Singapore). They kept one of them, a mixed- breed puppy called Charlie.

Having a pet is a lot of effort

Siana and Krishan take turns walking Charlie every day, and Siana bathes him about once every two weeks. Having a pet took more effort than the children thought. Krishan says it can be difficult waking up to walk Charlie at about 6.30am.

Siana says: “It’s a lot of responsibility. I thought it would just be fun, but you have to pick up his poo.”

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Rabbits are long-term pets (around 10 years)

For Ms Astin Lee, 37, who works in a statutory board, getting her two sons involved from the beginning, including researching their animal of choice, helps them to be responsible pet owners. For instance, the boys know that a rabbit can live about 10 years, making it a long- term responsibility.

The family has two house rabbits, Tiger and Miss McFlurry, and are fostering another, Buttercup. They also have a tank with an arowana and other fish, which Ms Lee’s husband Tan Chee Khai, 37, who works in the healthcare products sector, is mostly in charge of.

The older son Lucas, nine, helps feed the rabbits a varied diet, including wheatgrass, kale and home-grown herbs. He clears out their excrement every morning and his brother Lewis, six, helps their mother clean the rabbits’ pens every week.

Lucas says: “I want to learn more about rabbits because I have them as pets. I read books about bunnies and found out that they can’t eat carrots all the time because carrots are very sweet. “My least favourite part is picking up the poop. My favourite part is talking to the rabbits.”

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This article was first published in The Straits Times in 2017.