The pet adoption process for my family was ... unexpected. One Saturday, when my six-year-old son was having a play date in our backyard with his cousin and his best preschool friend, a black cat came to visit. To them, the cat visit was more exciting than the waterslide and the popsicles I had brought out. They squealed, pet him, and followed him around.
He started coming by more often, walking with my son and his grandmother to school and hanging around near our patio door. My husband started putting out food and water. My son named him Sammy. Everyone started calling Sammy our cat. I, on the other hand, was extremely hesitant to keep him -- we had never had a pet, and I just knew all the dirty work would be left with me.
But Pets Are Good for Kids!
There are many benefits of having a pet around small children, my friends told me. They will learn empathy. They will learn responsibility. They will learn how to better socialise with others. Plus, I knew my family members were sneaking Sammy into the house when I wasn't around. "And anyway," one friend said, "he chose you. You can't say no!"
So, after much pleading and prodding, I finally caved. We could keep him.
OK, First, Rules!
I needed my family to know I was serious about having everyone share the responsibility of caring for Sammy, and the best way to set a promise was to get it in writing. So I looked online for a pet contract that I found acceptable, then laid out my own additional conditions for having a cat inside the house: First, Sammy had to get spayed and neutered. He needed to get all his shots and get checked for fleas at the vet.
Second, the contract was binding: food and water were my son's domain; the litter box was my husband's. Third, if Sammy ever hurt the baby, he was out. Those were my non-negotiables. My son and my husband were, by then, besotted with Sammy -- so they signed.
Here are a few tips for creating your own pet contract:
- Discuss the terms of the contract beforehand. Maybe it's easier for you to feed your pet in the afternoon if you're the first one home. Maybe your kids would prefer to walk the dog after school. If everyone has a say in the negotiation, they will feel more vested in it.
- Treat the event with real formality. Like a real contract-signing, sit down with everyone involved and go over the agreement, then sign it together. Have cake to celebrate!
- Place the contract in a place where everyone can see it regularly. Ours is on a shelf by Sammy's food corner in the kitchen for easy viewing.
A Happy, Poopy Ending
Four months later, Sammy is firmly embedded as the third kid in my family. In retrospect, the pet contract was as much for my benefit as it was my son's and my husband's. It turned out to be an important life lesson for all of us: it formalized our family's commitment to taking care of Sammy, together.
The biggest thing it did was manage everyone's expectations. If Sammy needs food or water, my son refills his bowls without whining. ("Mum, this is the best job in the world!" he says.) If the litter box is overflowing, and there's even a little bit of grousing about it, I'll direct my husband back to the contract. (Read: I never have to clean the litter box. Ever.)
Everyone knew I didn't initially want Sammy, so I never had to do any of the dirty work, I just enforced the contract. But then, of course, the little guy grew on me. As it turned out, Sammy loved me the most and wanted to sleep beside me and be cuddled, mostly by me. He also brings me dead lizards on the regular.
So despite the pet contract, feeding Sammy, brushing his coat and taking care of him are now shared responsibilities within our family, which we all don't mind.
But I still don't clean the litter box.