Living with animals has plenty of benefits for children. Research suggests pet ownership may help soothe anxiety, loneliness, and depression in kids while encouraging responsibility and self-reliance.
“The average kid can learn responsibility and empathy through pet ownership,” says Julia Albright, associate professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine and PetSafe chair of small animal behavioral research. It’s just as important, she adds, to make the animal’s welfare a priority.
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Here’s how to teach children smart “pet-iquette”—even if a pet doesn’t live in the house—to help set them up for a lifetime of happy encounters.
Do teach kids to ask permission before petting an unfamiliar animal. “If the guardian says it’s OK, the child should first let the dog sniff his closed hand,” says Pia Silvani, director of the ASCPA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center.
Don’t let children hug pets—especially on a first meeting. It makes a cute picture, but “dogs don’t like hugs,” says Albright. “Most put up with it from people they know and trust. But children, with their louder, higher-pitched voices, quick movements, running, staring, poking, etc., are not the favorite age group of most dogs.” Same goes for cats.
Do show kids the right way to pet animals: Call the pup to you, and if it approaches, pet under the chin, the chest or shoulders, “not up and over the head,” says Albright, which can be perceived as a threat. “Show your child what gentle, enjoyable petting looks like,” Silvani adds. “Explain that hitting, kicking, or pinching dogs, as well as riding, teasing, or intentionally scaring them is not OK.” Similarly, with felines, it’s best to allow the cat to approach before petting.
Don’t allow kids to approach, touch, or play with a dog that is sleeping, eating, chewing a toy or bone, or caring for puppies. “Animas are more likely to bite if they’re startled, frightened, or caring for young,” says Silvani.
Do respect animals’ personal space. Teach children not to chase or pester animals that aren’t interested in interacting. And if pets live in the home, give them their own space—a crate for dogs to use as a den or a cat tree that’s off limits to inquisitive little ones.
Don’t leave children younger than 10 alone with pets. Interactions between young children and animals should always be supervised by an adult, says Silvani.
Do choose a pet based on your child’s age and behavior. “Because each child is different, there’s no universal right answer,” says Silvani. Although dogs and cats are the most common pets, other animals may be a better option. “Around age 4, guinea pigs are a good choice,” Silvani notes. “They’re large enough for little hands to hold, like to be held, and are not aggressive.” Ferrets, rats, hamsters, gerbils and mice can be a good fit for kids 6 to 10. For older kids 10 to 13, “dogs, cats, and rabbits make great companions,” she says, while teens may enjoy caring for birds, reptiles, and fish.
Do consider the individual animal, too. “Was it socialized with children during the important development period of 4 to 14 weeks of age?” says Albright. And don’t assume small dogs are best for young kids, she notes. Large breeds may behave better around children.
Don’t expect children to be solely responsible for pets’ care. Sure, kids can (and should) help with pet-related chores. Depending on the child, children can start feeding pets and cleaning litter at around 8 years old—under adult supervision, says Albright. In their mid-teens, kids can handle grooming and bathing pets. “I think it’s a great idea for kids to get involved in reward-based training, as well,” Albright adds.
But, remember, it’s really up to you as the adult, says Silvani. “The ultimate responsibility for care rests with the parents not matter the age of the child.”
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