Adopting a new pet can be a wonderful experience for a family. It’s an opportunity for us to demonstrate compassion and responsibility toward another sentient creature and to teach our children these same values. But first, parents should ask themselves, “Is my child old enough?”
Here’s a hazardous recipe: Take one small feline or puppy, heavily armed with sharp claws and teeth, and add one unsupervised toddler. I received a call recently from a concerned mother regarding the problem of how to keep children safe from pets, and vice-versa. In this particular case, the family had been given a 2-year-old Bassett hound. On the first day, the kids and the dog played happily. The children were delighted, and Mom and Dad were satisfied that the dog was going to be a good fit for the family.
By day two, however, the dog was running away from the children and has refused to play with them since. I’m thinking… what did the kids do to the dog?
People often adopt a puppy or a kitten with the expectation that their children will treat it with respect. Unfortunately, that does not always happen. Toddlers must be reminded to be gentle with small animals, as they tend to want to grab and squeeze. Toddlers scare small dogs and cats because they are loud, erratic in their movements, and fall down a lot, frequently ON the pet.
Sometimes, they accidentally step on a tiny foot, or drop the pet, or smash its head or tail in the door. And sometimes, unfortunately, children intentionally hit, kick, tease, yank on ears and tails, cut with scissors, or do any number of unpleasant things to pets.
These things happen to puppies and kittens on a regular basis, and consequently, children get severely bitten or scratched. The bottom line is, small children and pets of any age should never be left unsupervised. Children should also be considered helpers, not primary caretakers of the family pet. But they can and should be involved in all aspects of the pet’s care.
Three year olds can help groom your new puppy with a soft brush and can help pick out the puppy’s collar and toys. Four- to six-year-olds can help walk the puppy. Some leashes come with an additional hand loop. Your youngster can hold onto that and feel like they are “walking” the dog, but you actually are. Older children, age 7 years and up, can help feed and water your pet. My 9-year-old son is responsible for feeding and watering our two dogs, but I remind him regularly to check on their water bowls. My 11-year-old daughter is responsible for feeding and watering our cats, and she does a pretty good job. Children 8 and up can, and should, attend puppy behavior training classes with Mom and Dad.
Parents should teach by example that animals are to be treated with compassion and respect. They are, after all, family, too.