Whether you own a dog, a snake, a guinea pig or a bird, your pet is an important member of your family. Even young children can learn how to treat pets gently and provide basic care. These learning experiences teach children responsibility and empathy. Don't expect your child to shoulder the responsibility for a pet, but allow your child to take part with your supervision and support. Some kids enjoy pet care more than others; consider your child's interest when getting a pet or assigning responsibilities.
Communication and Respect
From the moment you bring your pet home, children must learn how to read and understand a pet's cues—for their safety, as well as the pet's. Some pets, such as snakes, lizards, ferrets or hedgehogs, are easily injured or may become aggressive. These pets require expert handling and may not be suitable for young children. When dealing with dogs, teach children to call the pet's name softly before approaching, advises the Ohio Parent Information Network. Teach children to leave dogs and cats alone while they're eating, sleeping, chewing on toys, or ill. Children can learn to watch a pet's body language. In dogs, a low growl, lowered ears or a lowered tail all mean, "Back off." Cats communicate this message by growling, hunching down or hissing. Teach your child how to hold small pets, such as rabbits, guinea pigs and cats safely and securely, with one hand underneath the pet's back legs; and they should back off if a pet seems frightened or upset. Children should never hit or yell at a pet. In their enthusiasm and excitement, preschoolers and toddlers don't always observe or respond to a pet's body language. Keep your little one safe by supervising interactions at all times. Intervene if play gets too rough or your pet seems bothered.
Owning a pet is a big responsibility, but most kids relish the opportunity to learn more. Read books together about your specific pet and take your child with you to vet appointments. Children can learn how to feed and groom pets. Help children clean out cages or change the litter box. Teach your child to wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling pets or cleaning cages. Even young children can learn about the importance of regular vet exams and vaccinations, notes Dr. Jason Nicholas, a veterinarian based in Portland, Ore., and founder of The Preventive Vet (ThePreventiveVet.com) for pet owners. When children become educated about pets, they're more likely to treat them kindly.
Involving children in a pet's health care can have unexpected benefits, says Nicholson. "Not only is wellness care vitally important for our cats and dogs, but involving the kids in the pet's wellness visits helps them feel better about their own pediatrician appointments." At home, children can brush pets, but parents should take care of administering medicine, brushing teeth or trimming nails.
Set Realistic Expectations
One of the keys to successfully teaching children to care for pets, according to the ASPCA, is to set expectations that are realistic for a child's age, personality and developmental level. Every child is different, and some kids can handle more responsibility at a younger age. In general, though, a 2-year-old child can help put away your pet's toys, play with a pet, or help put out food. Preschoolers can understand simple safety rules, such as avoiding touching a pet's face or bothering a pet while it's eating. Preschoolers can help change bedding or clean out cages. Elementary-age children can feed, bathe or clean up after pets with help from you. They can also walk pets on a leash with supervision, says Nicholas. Teenagers can handle almost all aspects of pet care, including training and walking pets. Children can and should be encouraged to help take care of pets, but ultimate responsibility for pets always lies with you. Don't assume that your child has fed or given water to a pet; follow up to make sure.
Teach children rules for keeping pets safe. Although it's tempting to feed pets human food, doing so encourages obesity and begging, advises Nicholson. Some foods, such as grapes and chocolate are even toxic to dogs. Additionally, teach kids to keep cats indoors and to keep dogs on a leash at all times when outside the confines of your backyard. Young children shouldn't be allowed to hold a leash alone, though, warns Nicholas. "An excited dog might bolt, hurting your child or running into the street." Some pets, such as turtles and birds, can carry diseases. Teach your child to always wash her hands with soap and water after handling pets.