Children and pets can get on great together and many parents are keen for their children to grow up with them.
When they meet for the first time, you want to create a safe and comfortable environment in which children and pets can start getting to know each other.
Preparation and house rules
Whether you’ve decided on a cat or a dog for your family, before your new pet arrives, it’s a great idea that everyone in your household is involved in setting some house rules.
House rules for children (and sometimes adults) will help them learn and understand what’s expected of them when it comes to caring for their new furry family member.
For children with little experience of being around pets, house rules can help educate them in how to approach and handle animals respectfully and with care.
Adem Fehmi, a dog behaviourist and trainer, has some simple and effective rules you might want to consider:
No shouting or loud voices around your kitten or puppy.
Gentle stroking only – only stroke them when they come to you.
Don’t disturb your pet when they’re asleep or having quiet time in their corner of the house.
Don't leave your pet with children unsupervised.
Every household is different, and the type of rules you might choose will naturally depend on your family’s own personal circumstances.
How to introduce pets to young children
The first introduction between families and pets will often take place at the breeder’s house or rescue centre. Taking a kitten or puppy into your home will be a new experience for them and it’s important they feel comfortable and safe in their new surroundings.
Teach children to be calm and gentle with your pet. Younger children need to quickly learn that the new family member is a living, breathing creature. One that they can feel scared, worried and uncomfortable, just like humans do.
How you introduce your new pet will depend upon your children’s ages. For younger children, it’s about learning how to handle and interact with a cat or dog safely. Let your pet become comfortable and familiar with the new surroundings. Give them the chance to get settled into their new home.
It’s a good idea to take some steps to prepare your house if you’re getting a puppy, as well as preparing your family.
The ManyPets veterinarian, Dr Kirsten Ronngren, gives this advice: “Let the dog or cat approach them, don’t make loud noises. Dogs prefer to have a tickle around their chest and neck area and not a pat on the head. They also, generally speaking, don't like being hugged as this can make them feel trapped. Cats like a tickle under their chin and behind their cheeks.”
When they feel comfortable cats and dogs will often approach children and adults out of natural curiosity so it’s better to be patient and wait for them to approach children on their own terms. Offering food and treats can encourage pets to take them from a child and bond with them.
What you don’t want, is to make introductions too quickly with your children. Cats especially can sometimes become nervous so do give them some time.
Understanding your pet’s body language
Cats and dogs are non-verbal and their body language does the talking for them. If you learn and start to understand their behaviour, it will help you to recognise what they’re trying to communicate.
You want children and pets to be safe and comfortable around each other. If you can recognise signs of discomfort in your pets, it can prevent incidents like biting and scratching.
Young children are more likely to be bitten than older children and adults, and in most cases it’s by a family pet.
When cats and dogs are anxious or stressed, small children are unlikely to spot the signs. You can always teach them how to tell when their pet is feeling afraid, uncomfortable or anxious.
Common body language signs to look out for that tell you your dog is unhappy:
Holding their ears back
Licking their lips or nose
Showing the white of their eyes
Holding ears back suggests your dog is anxious or fearful about something. This is especially true if you see this with other sign of stress such as licking lips, which can mean they want some space for themselves or they want a break from training.
Vet Kirsten Ronngren says: “Yawning and licking lips are calming signals for both dogs and cats and could be something you could get your child to do to break the ice.”
A cat’s body language can be more subtle compared to dogs. Signs to look out for that tell you your cat’s not happy are if you find them in a crouched position. If they look tense with their body held tightly and their tail tucked into the body, these are typical signs that they are stressed or anxious.
If you spot any of these behaviours when your cat or dog is in the company of children, it’s best separate them and give them some time and space for themselves.
If your dog’s crate trained, a time-out with a chew in their crate could help them to relax again.
How to introduce pets to new babies
Sometimes, the pets were there first and the new family member being introduced is your newborn baby.
Your preparations for this introduction can begin before the new baby is brought home. Cats and dogs need their own safe space within the family home and this area will become more important with the arrival of baby. This could be an area separated off by a baby gate, a crate, or even a room in the home just for them, which will help maintain boundaries as your baby grows and becomes more mobile.
If your pet isn't used to being separated from you, it is best to start the process slowly. Stay in close proximity to begin with when introducing a safe space.
Your pet will need to build their confidence being away from you for short periods of time and get used to the idea that they’ll be sharing your attention at times. You can prepare them by slowly introducing new routines and boundaries prior to your baby’s arrival. Go at your pet’s pace, building their confidence in the new routines, and be careful to not cause any stress. An accredited behaviourist can help you with this process if needed.
Creating a safe space doesn’t mean you’re ignoring them, you’re just helping them get used to the idea of being more independent, which will be a useful skill to them when the new baby arrives in the home.
To make the experience positive and provide enrichment, you can give them a couple of toys to occupy them. Food dispending toys can work well here for dogs. Any toys that create calm and absorbing entertainment for them are ideal. Calmness is the key word here.
You might want to start making certain parts of the home off limits. For example, upstairs can become out of bounds if you live in a house. Follow our top tips and best buys for safely child and pet-proofing your home.
You could start using a baby gate before the baby comes home and your pet will learn where they’re not allowed in. This will create space for you to safely carry out tasks such as changing a nappy, feeding your baby, or even setting out a play area for your baby to explore.
The sofa is another place where you’re likely to spend a lot of time with a new baby. Before the new arrival, you might want to start letting your cat or dog know that the sofa is now off limits.
When you’re feeding your new baby or changing nappies, it’ll be a lot easier if your dog is quietly being entertained in their corner of the home while you’re dealing with the task at hand.
With cats, let them meet your baby in a neutral area of the house – a place away from where they normally eat and sleep. If your cat’s interested, you can let them smell the baby as a first introduction and offer praise and encouragement for their calm behaviour.
Of course, some cats may only have a passing interest in the new arrival and will quickly return to their own business!
Some pets, particularly cats, can find the arrival of a new baby quite unsettling and it could even trigger behavioural issues like urinating in the house.
Ask your vet for advice with behaviour issues – it might even be covered by your pet insurance. All our policies cover behaviour treatment when you’ve been referred by your vet.
And we understand how hard it can be to make a trip to the vet with a baby in tow, so we also include unlimited 24/7 online vet advice as part of your policy.
The start of a lifelong friendship
Adopting a family cat or dog is exciting for children of all ages. Very often its children that beg their parents for a new pet.
Successful introductions between pets and children should involve education and patience in an environment that’s safe and calm. Never leave babies and young children unsupervised around cats and dogs – you should be on-hand to help build confidence between your pet and child.
For toddlers and young children, the most important lesson should be teaching them to respect their pet’s space, and learn the types of behaviour that is or isn’t allowed around their pets.
Older children and teenagers should have more maturity and if they feel confident, they can take some responsibility in feeding, training and caring for their pet.
And then comes the fun – you can bond together as a family by making many more memories with some pet-friendly family holidays and days out.