We were running late, as usual. No one was dressed yet, the beds weren't made, and I kept tripping over the dog while I crisscrossed the kitchen, trying to cook breakfast and pack three lunches at once.

"Bed, Scout," I said crossly, pointing the dog to her space in the family room. When 8-year-old Sam climbed up on the counter to get to the cereal cabinet, I shooed him away too. "Wait, honey. The oatmeal's almost ready."

"Mom, I'm starving," he wailed. "Can't I just get myself some cereal?"

So I wasn't exactly thrilled when, five minutes later, I plunked down three bowls of oatmeal and starving Sam wasn't at the table. His two little brothers dutifully dug in, but Sam was headed out the door, skipping and giggling while Scout bounded alongside him.

"Sam!" I ordered. "You get in here right this minute and eat your oatmeal!"

He stopped, turned, and looked at me in astonishment. "But Mom, Scout's hungry too. It would be cruel to eat in front of her when she hasn't had breakfast herself."

And it dawned on me that Scout is far more than just another beloved creature in my house who needs something from me. Scout is one of the chief reasons my sons are becoming good human beings: She's teaching them empathy, compassion, and responsibility. She's teaching them what it means to put another's needs before their own. And in a world of report-card grades and ball-game scores and bad-behavior time-outs (and, it must be admitted, stressed-out mothers), her unconditional love is teaching my children that they're real heroes, no matter what.

Benefits of the Bond

Almost 60 percent of American households have pets (with dogs just edging out cats), even though a pet can be a significant investment of both time and money. But the benefits to children -- to the whole family, really -- far outweigh the costs.

Pets keep kids healthy

"The scientific proof is building on the living-room logic that pets not only make us feel good, they're good for us," says veterinarian Marty Becker, D.V.M., author of Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul. Recent studies in Europe and the United States have found that infants who share a home with at least one pet are significantly less likely to develop allergies to animals, dust mites, grasses, and pollens later in childhood. Pet owners also tend to be less anxious and have lower blood pressure than folks who don't have an animal in the house.

Pets often rate as a sort of furry form of Prozac too: "They can provide social support that helps people to be more impervious to anxiety-provoking situations," says psychologist Kimberly Sirl, Ph.D., of the St. Louis Children's Hospital. This is especially true for children, who tend to see pets -- even fish -- as family members. They give kids a way to cope with the normal stresses of growing up -- the birthday parties they're excluded from, the lost soccer games -- as well as more disruptive events like the death of a grandparent or divorce. "Children may find it easier to tell a pet their feelings," says Sirl.

Pets improve kids' self-esteem

The way many dogs and cats (and, lots of kids would argue, guinea pigs) love children is unconditional, which can help kids to develop healthy self-esteem. "No matter what sort of day we've had, pets love us just the same," says Dr. Becker.

Self-esteem also grows out of a sense of accomplishment. When a child feeds a pet, takes it for a walk, or simply scratches it behind the ears, the positive feedback is both instant and obvious. A wagging tail or a satisfied purr is all it takes for a child to know that she's done a good job.

Pets give kids social confidence

Children who tend to be shy, sensitive, or withdrawn may find it easier to open up to an animal than to another person, which can help them build the confidence they need to develop human relationships. A bashful child with a dog on a leash or a kitten on the front porch may also find that other kids are attracted to the animal, giving the child an easy way to engage with others.

Pets teach kids how to care

Children tend to respond to a pet's unconditional love with unconditional love of their own. In fact, relationships with pets are very simple compared to those with family and friends, says Sirl. A sibling can be a nuisance, a friend can be fickle, parents can be insufferably bossy -- but an animal inspires only mutual love. A little boy who's trying hard to become a big boy may feel awkward giving a friend a hug, but he can go home and nuzzle his dog or his cat without feeling self-conscious
What's Best for You?

Of course, the payoffs of pet ownership will be undermined if the animal is a bad match for your family. So before considering any pet, you'll need to do your homework. You have to consider how much space, energy, time, and money you have to invest. If cost is an issue, keep in mind that dogs and cats are the most expensive animals to maintain. If time is at a premium in your household, note that dogs must be walked, groomed, and trained. For busy families, a lower-maintenance animal, such as a cat, a guinea pig, a bird, or even a fish, might be a better choice. The same holds true for households where space is limited. Some other things to think about before expanding the family:

Allergies

Consider the health of everyone before settling on a specific pet. If Dad is allergic to cats, don't get one no matter how much a child has her heart set on it. And note that kids could develop allergies as well. If a child tends to have pollen or food allergies or to suffer frequent bouts of dermatitis, there's a chance she may be allergic to pet dander too. Check with your pediatrician and watch your child's reaction to other people's pets before bringing any animal home.

Avoid fad animals

For a family pet, of course, you want an animal that responds well to children. Certain dogs, such as Jack Russell terriers (like Wishbone) and Dalmatians, look really cute on TV and in movies but aren't great with kids. (Other breeds to avoid: pit bulls, Scottish terriers, German shepherds, Akitas, chows, and Rottweilers. While there are always exceptions, many of these dogs are bred to be aggressive guard dogs.) The same is true of exotic animals -- reptiles, imported birds, ferrets -- and all wild creatures, even those orphaned and adopted while still very young.

Work only with reputable breeders and sellers

If pure-breed cats and dogs are bred irresponsibly, they're prone to a host of health problems that can be very expensive to treat. Likewise, animals from pet stores, such as parakeets and mice, are more likely to carry infectious diseases if they're kept in unsanitary and crowded conditions. So for the health of both your pet and your family, ask a veterinarian to recommend a good source for the kind of pet you're considering, or head for the Humane Society and save the life of a mixed breed.

A veterinarian's office may also be a good place to pet-hunt

Often you'll find a listing of puppies or kittens born to the vet's patients. And many vets will take in strays or abandoned litters, hoping to find them homes.

Raising children is about the most time- and energy-sapping endeavor there is in life, and sometimes I have to wonder if I temporarily lost my mind when I added Scout, Bessie (our cat), Smoky (our hamster), and three different aquariums full of fish to the list of living things I take care of every day. But when I see my little boys ruffling Scout's ears or trailing a string for Bessie to pounce on or ever-so-gently stroking Smoky's impossibly soft fur, I realize I haven't lost my mind at all: I've enriched my heart as well as my home. Not to mention my children's lives.

Contributing editor Margaret Renkl wrote "A Miracle for Isaac" in the February issue.

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