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Teach children how to interact with pets safely

Growing up with pets is a wonderful experience for children. It teaches them empathy, a sense of responsibility and most of all, provides a loving bond they will always treasure. We never forget our first pet!

If you’re a parent or have children in your home, one of your roles is to provide them with the foundations of safe handling and respect for pets. This is essential to protect everyone’s wellbeing whenever children and animals are together. Luckily there are lots of resources to help, starting with the following tips.

Choose your pet carefully

The first step is to choose carefully when introducing a pet to your family. Whether you adopt a pet from an animal welfare organisation or buy from a reputable breeder, it’s crucial that you discuss the suitability of the animal and their behaviour for a family with children.

When choosing a dog for your family, the main consideration is whether they are comfortable around children, regardless of their size. This is especially important because children have a higher risk of being bitten by a dog compared to adults, and dogs bites to children are most often from dogs they know. Adult dogs can be a good fit for families with children because they are usually calmer than puppies and have established personalities, which makes it easier to teach your children how to interact safely with your dog. Likewise, when choosing a cat for your family, the ideal companion would be confident and well socialised around children as well as adults.

The important introduction between animal and child

The next step is introducing pets to children. Children must always be directly supervised around pets and kept safely separated when this is not possible. Introductions work best with children sitting calmly and quietly, allowing the pet to approach them at their own pace. Show them how to stroke the animal gently on the shoulder, avoiding the head, tail, belly, legs and feet. Offering your pet treats during these interactions will teach them to associate the presence of children with something good.

To avoid any incidents, you will need a set of family rules which will help your children to understand they must not do things that may frighten or harm their pets, and to avoid the animal potentially responding in fear by biting or scratching. Examples of family rules should include the following:

  • Allow pets their space and never force interactions with them
  • Respect their boundaries and never approach pets who are eating, sleeping, in their crates or who are unwell, injured or tired
  • Remain calm around pets and end interactions if either the children or pets are becoming overly excited
  • Handle pets gently and teach children to avoid hugging dogs or cats, who may become fearful and reactive
  • Play safely with pets, with no rough play or chasing
  • Treat pets with kindness, with no teasing or reprimanding
  • Create a peaceful home for pets, with no yelling, screaming or other noisy behaviour around them
  • Teach empathy by never allowing children to do anything to pets they are not allowed to do to other children. This includes no climbing on pets or pulling of ears (or tails)
  • Provide pets with somewhere to retreat to when they need their space. Cats must have a safe place, with at least one room they can go where children cannot enter.
  • Teach children to pick up dogs and cats by supporting their front and hind legs and body, and only under adult supervision
  • Respect cats and dogs who are not comfortable being picked up
  • Never approach unknown dogs
  • Touch (here is some information on kids and pet safety and why you should not hug an animal) by allowing the dog to smell the back of the child’s hand and then teaching the child to stroke the dog gently on the shoulder, avoiding the head, tail area, belly, legs and feet
  • Always ask owners for permission before touching their dogs

Watch the pet’s body language

Children (and many adults) are not good at reading the body language of pets. You can help them by sharing resources with pictures; for example, pictures of dogs who look happy or relaxed, compared to pictures of dogs who appear stressed, frightened, fearful or aggressive and, therefore, should not be approached. There are similar resources for understanding cats to help identify when they are feeling happy, worried, unhappy or angry. Giving children some responsibilities, such as filling food and water bowls or joining you on walks or in games, is a great way to foster positive relationships with pets. And for new pets, puppy pre-school teaches owners about safe handling and basic training, so involving children of a suitable age helps get them off to a good start.

Your pet’s behavioural and health instincts are important

Having children and pets in your home can present some challenges but keeping everyone safe through supervision and appropriate family rules from the outset is well worth the effort. The best way to ensure positive interactions with pets is to set the example you want your children to follow. If you have any concerns, speak with your veterinarian, who can advise you on pet behavioural and health issues as needed.

As a pet parent, there’s nothing more stressful than when your pet is sick or injured. Pet insurance helps you with the cost of eligible veterinary bills so you can be prepared for unexpected accidental injuries or illnesses.

GapOnly™ is a payment service when claiming on your RSPCA pet insurance policy at participating veterinary clinics. By only paying the gap – the portion of your eligible vet bill not covered by your insurance policy - you and your vet can focus on providing the best possible care for your pet.

Image of Dr Rosemary Elliot

Dr Rosemary Elliot 

Dr Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after having established her career as a clinical psychologist, and has qualifications of BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), MPsych (Clin), BA (Hons) as well as previously establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics, with a particular interest in animal sentience and the human-animal bond. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Rosemary combines her psychology background and veterinary skills to contribute to and promote animal welfare, and regularly contributes quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance's Pet Care blog.

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