by Kimberly Wade
Kids and pets are a natural combination. Who doesn’t love the adorable photo of the tiny child napping on a fluffy cat, or curled up next to a dog? What child doesn’t want to grow up with a four-legged BFF? We decorate nurseries with stuffed animals and animal print murals. We surround kids with animals—so why wouldn’t we want them to coexist?
The reason we struggle is because we don’t properly introduce the two and we don’t actively supervise them. I know parents who feel judged by bringing a pet home to a newborn baby or feel they need to give up their pet because a baby is on the way. You can have both, and given so many people around me are having kids and already have a home full of cats and dogs, I thought we could offer some basic help:
- Prepare. If you already have children, start teaching them how to interact with the pet—use a stuffed animal as an example. Kids can be playful, so let them know that tugging on the tail or ears is not ok, and teach them to never put their face directly in the pet’s face. On the other hand, if you have pets and a newborn on the way, let the pets be a part of setting up the nursery so they can see and smell everything. Bring home the first onesie your child wears so that the pets can smell it in advance of baby coming home. When baby does arrive, be sure to teach your pet that it’s not ok to climb on the kids, and have a secure place for them so that the pets can’t get to them.
- Create kid-free and pet-free zones. Even the most energetic pet needs time to chill out and kids will need their own space too. Show kids basic dog or cat language—if you see the tail swishing low and tucked, or ears pinned back, it’s a sign that the pet needs to be left alone. If a pet growls, it’s not a bad thing—it’s a warning sign and means you should separate the two.
- Include kids in the animal care. Have them assist with walking, feeding and training. It not only helps to build a bond between the pet and child, but teaches the child responsibility.
- Use positive reinforcement. Give plenty of praise for the child when they demonstrate proper behavior, and let the kids reward the pet with treats when they exhibit good behavior. Teach by example—we know kids learn by watching us so expressing gentle affection for the pet will certainly rub off on your children.
- Finally, actively supervise by being a part of their interactions. Kids, especially newborns, should never be left alone with any pet. Animals may react to a high pitched scream or kids may unintentionally provoke a pet. Supervision is key to ensuring a good relationship with them both.
Even if you don’t have a pet, basic skills for kids and pets interacting are important. For example, teach kids not to run up to a dog or a cat they don’t know. That pet may have never been around kids and even if nothing is done wrong, that pet may not know how to react. Have kids ask before petting or reaching out to pets—let the pet initiate contact.
Animals can have an amazing effect on children, offering comfort, companionship, learning opportunities and so much more. They are meant to be together, and we, as adults and parents, have the vital job of teaching all of our kids, two and four-legged alike, how to behave around one another. My husband and I don’t have kids, yet we have lots of kids in the family. Our pets are not often around them, so they are terrified of someone their same height. They are all well-behaved, but we’ve learned to move slowly or if needed, put the dogs in their crates and cats in a bedroom. It’s our job to set everyone up for success.
There are so many resources out there for kids and pets so please, don’t be deterred about adopting if you have a child, or feel you need to give up your pet because a child is on the way. You can have both.