The advantages of growing up around a pet have been widely documented. Having a pet around enhances empathy, inculcates a sense of responsibility and improves social skills, but this is only if the initial introduction of the pet and the child is done right.
Both toddlers and pets are unpredictable in terms of their movement and are capable of unknowingly invading each other’s personal space. Toddlers and young children are not always able to express or articulate their feelings. Pets, in any case, do not speak our language. So it is essential to set some ground rules and supervise the initial interactions, till a relationship of trust and friendship develops.
Before you get a pet, provide safe spots at home to which the animal can retreat. You can consider setting up barricades to keep the pet and children separate and safe.
Never leave a child, especially a toddler, alone with a pet. Children above the age of seven can be allowed to interact by themselves if supervised encounters have shown both sides are comfortable.
Always supervise encounters in an open area where the pet has the option of escaping if it feels threatened.
Allow the pet to come to the toddler when it feels comfortable, rather than forcing either to interact. Ensure a calm environment during the interaction. Don’t let your child scream or shout around the pet, and don’t let your pet get too frisky. If this happens, discontinue the interaction for the time being.
Reward both the child and the pet after a successful interaction: praise for the child, a treat for the pet. Don’t let the child provide the treats initially; an excited dog may nip their tiny fingers.
Gradually increase the length of time and intimacy of the contact. Not every pet is comfortable with cuddles, so teach children to only touch the areas that the animals are comfortable with. Cats, for example, tolerate being stroked on the head or around the cheekbones but despise being stroked on the tail or belly. Similarly, dogs are apprehensive about having their paws and tails touched.
Teach your child to touch the pet gently; do not touch the whiskers. Do not let your child ride the dog.
When you bring a new dog or kitten home, make sure it has enough alone time to prevent stress.
Remember, children can hurt pets too. If the child wants to play with the puppy or kitten, encourage them to do it on the floor rather than pick up the animal. My dog, Musafir, was excellent with children until the little kids in my neighbourhood started running to greet and embrace him. He now tries to stay away from them. So, when you get a new pet, don’t let the children invite too many of their friends at the same time.
Teach them to respect the personal space of their pets. For instance, they shouldn’t touch the pet while it is eating or sleeping. Keep your pet’s toys separate and teach your child not to play with them.
Encourage them not to be too noisy around the pet, for this can cause stress. They should never be allowed to put clothing or other items on the pet.
Train your pet to sit and stay still while offering positive reinforcement to make interactions safer and more enjoyable for both parties.
Before engaging with a pet, children must learn to ask for permission from an adult and respect the animal’s need for privacy. By involving him or her in activities related to the pet, you can instil a sense of responsibility in your child. They can go for walks with you and your pet and help fill the pet’s food and water bowls. Ensure that proper hygiene is maintained at all times, though.
If we do it right, we can produce a generation of pet lovers and conscientious pet parents.
Dr Nameeta Nadkarni is a practising veterinary soft tissue surgeon and pet blogger from Mumbai, who loves to play the piano in her free time and is ruled by her whimsical cat, Catbury, at home.