Bringing home a new pet is truly exciting for pet parents with children, just as bringing home a new child is exciting for pet parents who already have pets. Puppy kisses, bright colored toys, sparkly kitten collars, gallivanting around the backyard with our pets — these images spark pure joy in adults and children alike. Parents and kids can enjoy bonding with their pet and creating a safe space for an animal that deserves love and care.
Whether a new pet is joining your kids or a new child is joining your pet, it’s essential to teach pets and children appropriate ways to behave around one another. If you do this well, you can spend more time building healthy bonds between your canine and human family members, and less time worrying about accidents.
Here’s a success story that’s near and dear to the author of this article.
It may be hard to believe, but the sweet girl you see in the picture above was surrendered to her local humane society for biting. (Her name is Bella, by the way.) On two occasions, she bit a young child in the home. She was taken to the shelter at less than one year of age.
So why was Bella biting? One might assume that because of her breed, she should have been well trained and gentle. But the hard pill to swallow is that any animal, placed in a scenario with certain stressors, has the potential to become reactive. This isn’t because the animal is “bad” or inherently aggressive; it’s because humans sometimes don’t recognize the warning signs that signal a pet’s discomfort in a given situation.
Behavioral issues are one of the most common reasons pets are relinquished to rescues. Luckily, this particular love bug was adopted out and trained for months, and her new pet parents ultimately gained a comprehensive understanding of her triggers. Now she’s an excellent lap dog and professional farm overseer. And it’s possible that Bella’s original incidents could have been avoided with more training — both for her and for the child involved.
Over the course of this article, you’ll learn how pet parents can help their pets and their kids thrive together.
It’s crucial for pets and kids to understand that they both have boundaries. This is true of all ages, breeds, and species. Establishing these boundaries can help promote safety between kids and pets in the home. It can also help children learn how to behave around pets belonging to other people.
Making sure your child understands the following guidelines can be a game changer in pet safety:
Children should never approach or pet an animal they do not know without asking the owner first. (That’s because some pets are fearful of new situations, people, sounds, and smells, making them nervous and more reactive than normal. And kids are often excitable, which can be overwhelming for pets.)
Kids should approach animals slowly, to avoid startling them
Kids should avoid making loud noises if possible
Kids should touch pets gently to keep the situation calm
Kids should never chase pets who run away from them
Teaching your pets about boundaries can be helpful too! Exposing dogs and cats to new scenarios with kids (ones that are quiet, slow, and allow them to escape if they want to) will help foster positive associations with children rather than fearful ones.
Make sure you keep dogs on a leash when they first meet kids. And have lots of treats ready to encourage positive rewards for positive behaviors like sitting, sniffing hands, or letting children pet them.
Cats can be a bit more challenging, but the same key points apply. Having fun toys or treats available can ease some tension. And cats in particular should have a safe place to escape to should they feel the need. But the more positive interactions you create, the less likely our feline friends will feel threatened by your kids.
When introducing pets to kids, shorter, more frequent meetings under direct supervision (with lots of treats and breaks) is key to success.
Oh, and don’t leave pets and children together unattended, even in the best of circumstances.
Understand Body Language
Teaching kids to appreciate the body language of an uncomfortable pet is one of the best ways to promote safety. Oftentimes these signs are subtle, but they’re usually present prior to a pet reacting (biting, scratching, lunging, etc.). Here’s a list of common indicators that a pet is fearful or uncomfortable:
Panting: While panting is a way for dogs to get rid of body heat, it can also be a sign of stress. Some dogs may hold their mouth completely closed in a tight line if they’re anxious.
Wide Eyes or Dilated Pupils: Stressed pets will often have large dilated pupils or show a large portion of their sclera (the white part of the eye).
Ears Pinned Back or Extreme Alertness: Relaxed pets will typically leave their ears in a more neutral, natural position. Pets that are anxious may have their ears pinned back against their head, or in some cases they may be completely erect to help them listen carefully.
Increased Drooling, Lip Licking, or Yawning: Sometimes these changes can make people think their pet is relaxed. But in scenarios that are stressful, it’s actually common for dogs to yawn or drool more than normal.
Shaking or Cowering: These are more obvious indicators of discomfort. Pets that shake are outwardly manifesting their distress. Pets that cower or even hide are actively trying to remove themselves from the cause of their discomfort.
Abnormal Vocalizations: Dogs that whine, whimper, or even bark excessively are indicating that they’re overstimulated or nervous. For cats, abnormal vocalizations can include meowing (often in a different tone than usual) or hissing. On the flip side, dogs that tend to be chatty can become quieter when stressed.
Avoidance: Pets that are anxious may try to avoid stressful encounters altogether. This can mean trying to avoid eye contact, facing away from a stressful scenario, or even trying to remove themselves completely by hiding or running away.
Older children (particularly kids over five years of age) are more likely to possess the natural ability to recognize these behaviors. Educating younger children and toddlers about respecting pets’ physical boundaries is especially important.
It’s also important to take the age of the pet into account. Age may affect whether they can clearly display the warning signs of discomfort. And since young pets are still learning how to socialize appropriately in the world, they need more time and space as they acclimate to new scenarios. Senior pets need extra attention: If their hearing, sight and mobility decrease, they can become more nervous in unfamiliar situations.
As kids begin to learn which signals mean distress, they can be taught to self-regulate when it comes to determining whether or not the interaction is safe.
Learn Which Behaviors to Avoid
Once you’ve established boundaries for both your pets and your kids, and discussed which body language to watch out for, it can be easier to explain to kids which behaviors they should avoid when interacting with pets.
Loud noises, climbing on or over pets, hitting or roughly petting pets, and preventing pets from escaping from the situation should all be avoided. While we would love for all pets to enjoy a nice long hug, most of them prefer affection on their own terms. Cats in particular often don’t want to be held or carried around without being able to make a quick exit, though they may enjoy a cuddle sometimes.
For older pets, it’s crucial to make sure they can see or hear you coming before you make physical contact with them. Otherwise you may startle them and cause a fearful reaction.
For kids, avoiding these behaviors with their own pets is already important enough. But when your kids are interacting with pets that don’t belong to them and are not familiar with them, steering clear of triggering behaviors can be even more critical.
Know When to Ask for Help
Knowing when to remove your pet from a stressful scenario is a powerful skill. By learning what sorts of body language an uncomfortable pet might display, or what triggers might cause unwanted behaviors, you may simply be able to remove your pet from troubling scenarios. Distracting them with an activity or a command, followed by a reward, can also decrease anxiety and refocus their attention on something positive.
But while a lot of behavioral concerns can be addressed with time, learning, patience, and consistency, there can absolutely be cases where your pet may require more significant intervention than you’re able to provide. Pets who become severely stressed on a regular basis may need a trip to their primary veterinarian and/or a consultation with a veterinary behaviorist.
Your primary vet will likely want to rule out any underlying medical conditions that may prompt abnormal behaviors, such as pain. Pets are masters at hiding medical problems from us, so a thorough physical examination and suggestions from your vet are an excellent resource. But if there don’t appear to be any obvious health problems, then more advanced training (and sometimes anti-anxiety supplements or prescriptions) can be utilized.
Types of stress may include separation anxiety, resource guarding (i.e., aggressive protectiveness of food, toys, etc.), leash aggression, and fear aggression, among others. Veterinarians and trained behaviorists are wonderful resources that can significantly impact your pet’s quality of life — and your family’s.
Enjoy Having Pets and Kids
Teaching pets and kids how to foster healthy relationships is a crucial safety move for parents. That being said, doing so successfully takes time, consistency and understanding. First, just remember that any pet can react fearfully in the wrong scenario. Keeping this in mind can help you be mindful of potential problems that may arise in your home.
Pets are a great way for children to learn how to be responsible, how to care for someone else, and how to give and receive affection. (Evidence shows that children with special needs particularly benefit from regular interaction with animals.) Having pets as a child is a memory that will last a lifetime. Just follow the right steps, and you’ll create an environment where both human and non-human kiddos can live together in well-adjusted harmony.