If you are anything like me you consider your pets to be part of the family. Often pets are a part of the family before the children are even born. I have two cats one of which I’ve had for ten years. She had a hard time adjusting to the addition of our little girl and still to this day hides when she comes near. My other cat is much braver and has a love/hate relationship with my daughter. Sometimes they hang out together and other times one is chasing the other across the room. Yes, my cat chases my child.
Part of the problem is that my daughter hasn’t quite grasped that the cat has feelings like she does. She’s getting a lot better now and the days of her just walking past the cat and hitting it over the head with a flip-flop are long gone. She has her moments though and I’m still working with her to help her understand that hitting or otherwise aggravating the cat is not acceptable.
Teaching About Animals In General
Begin teaching your child about all animals very young in life. Many children think because animals live in our homes that all animals are OK to approach. Take a walk around the block in your neighborhood and you are bound to run into a dog or two. It’s important to teach them to treat all animals with caution. Dogs that do not know a child may take a child’s friendly advances as a sign of aggression. Many children end up in the emergency room because of this. Tell your child repeatedly it’s all right to say “hello doggie” but they should do it from a distance and they should never approach a dog on their own.
Animals Have Feelings Too
When your child is interacting with a pet take the opportunity to teach them about care and safety. Even the most lovable and easy-going pet has its limits. Pets should be left alone when they are sleeping, eating or playing with toys.
Let your child know, by example if possible, that pets don’t necessarily like to be hugged, kissed and cuddled like people do. Show them that pets like to be petted and lightly scratched but anything more may make the animal upset or angry. Repeatedly remind your child that when an animal growls, shows its teeth or swats at them that it’s time to back away and leave the animal alone.
If your child is hitting and kicking animals they may not understand that animals are not toys or if they poke or kick an animal it hurts them. Depending on the child this message may take some time to register in their mind. You should gently remind them again and again the animal feels pain just like they do. Ask them how it would feel if they were kicked or if they like having their hair pulled.
This behavior can also be learned. Ask your child if they have seen someone else treat animals this way. As parents you should set strict rules about the treatment of your pets. Let your child know what they can and cannot do and what the punishment will be if they hurt the animal. Stand by your punishments and do not relent.
Helping Them Learn
One great way to help your child understand a pet is a living animal and not a toy is to allow your child to help you care for the pet. They can help you pour food or water into the pet’s bowls. Explain this is how the animal eats. Explain that the litter box is where kitty goes potty much like we use the restroom. Involve your child in all aspects of pet care even if you just explain what you are doing.
You should also lead by example. Your children will learn by watching how you interact with your pets. If your pet scratches something or has an accident remember that your child is watching how you handle the situation. If you yell and scream at the animal your child will start doing the same thing. Show your child that you love and respect the animal and they will follow your example.
If Nothing Seems to Work
If your lessons and examples aren’t working you may have to become more diligent. For quite a while I would not allow my daughter to be near the cats if I was not right next to her. If you see your child approaching the animal quickly remove them from the area and explain that until they learn to treat the pet nicely they will not be allowed to interact with them.
You may also have to make stiffer punishments. If you have been using time outs, extend the time they must be in time out when they hurt the animal. Take away toys or privileges and remind them why they are losing toys or activities.
All children learn at their own pace and the best you can do it be diligent. My daughter is a very bright girl but for some reason this lesson has been hard for her to learn. At one point I was afraid it was hopeless but she is almost there