Ages and Stages: Pet Care

Pet ownership can have myriad benefits for your child’s development, including giving their emotional EQ a boost. However, parents sometimes struggle with how to help their new baby bond with their beloved pets. Or perhaps you’re looking to introduce a new pet to your family. Here are some tips on how your young children and “fur children” can have a healthy, happy coexistence.

Ages 0–1: It’s obviously too soon for your baby to help with pet chores, but it’s the perfect time for you to start introducing them to the concept of a pet being a real, living being that needs proper care and attention. Talk to your baby about your pet and model appropriate ways to pet, groom and take care of your pet. Say things like, “Nice doggy! See how we pet the doggy softly with our hand?” Or, “Let’s take Spot for a walk at the park! He needs his leash. Where do we keep it?” Read books to your baby about children and their pets, such as Oh, the Pets You Can Get!: All About Our Animal Friends by Tish Rabe (illustrated by Aristides Ruiz and Joe Mathieu) or practice animal noises and facts with Simple First Sounds: Noisy Pets by Roger Priddy. Using baby touch-and-feel books are also helpful to teach your baby how to gently pet animals with the hand held flat, palm side down.

Ages 1–3: Curious, active toddlers can be a bit overwhelming for some pets. Remember that pets need their space too. Watch for signs of stress or anxiety when your child and pet interact. Use baby or pet gates, crates, cages, cat trees or other ways to give your pet their own safe space when necessary. Remember to share how to be gentle with your pet: no pulling ears, tails, fur or feathers. It’s also not advised to allow your toddler to pick up or hold a pet without adult assistance.

Dr. Steve Smith, the Home Pet Doctor, recommends teaching the “One-Hand Rule”:

“Children normally like to grab things with one or both hands, and that could definitely scare a dog, cat or other domestic pet. Telling them to use one hand at a time is pretty simple, and well understood.” Continue to model responsible pet care and reinforce good behavior with your young child.

Ages 4–5: As an older sibling or parent cares for the pet, have your child watch. They may be able to help with some small tasks, like scooping food into dishes, as long as they are under adult supervision. Does your pet know a few tricks? Teach your child how to give commands like “sit” or “stay,” or practice talking, reading and singing to your pet! Avoid more aggressive pet games like tug-of-war, and instead encourage interactive play — like fetch or catch — that can also help develop your child’s gross motor skills. When playing with toys, however, it is important to reinforce which toys are just for your pet, and which are your child’s. If you have a dog, we suggest making and playing this game with your child next time you head out for a walk.

For Non-Pet Owners

Not every family has the time necessary to devote to a pet. Remember, pets are a lifetime commitment, much like children, and require a great deal of care and attention. If your family isn’t quite ready to take the journey into pet ownership, there are other ways to get your furry, scaly or feathered fix. We recommend visiting a local sanctuary or rescue facility — such as the Wildlife Learning Center in Sylmar — to learn more about animals, or checking out a BARK event at your local library, where children can practice their reading skills on dogs.

Did You Know…

Not all pets are ideal matches for very young children. The American Humane Society recommends adult cats (not kittens) for children under the age of 5. Similarly, KidsHealth.org warns that certain pets, including reptiles and rodents, can transmit salmonella through their feces — making curious toddlers especially vulnerable to illness. Want to know which kind of pet is right for your family? Take our quiz and find out!

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