Pets and Preschoolers

by Mary Jane Checchi

Preschooler with dog"What is the difference between a teddy bear and a cat?" To adults, the answer is obvious: the cat is alive, the toy is not. But, cautions Dr. Michael W. Fox of the Humane Society of the United States, "Most children under the age of three tend to treat animals like stuffed toys."

Infants (0-12 months). Some years ago, when my son was a mere six months old, he became fascinated by our gentle old calico cat. I quickly learned (as did our cat), that he delighted in reaching for her waving tail. If he could grab it, he would hold on to it for dear life -- just as he did with my hair, or his father's thumb.

My son had no intention of harming any of us, and indeed, he had no awareness that he could do so. An infant does not know that other living beings can feel pain, discomfort, hunger, or fear -- any more than he realizes that a stuffed animal does not have these feelings.

Parents should not leave babies and pets together unattended. Even the most patient and loving pet -- a dog, cat, or bunny -- can be goaded into lashing out if frightened or injured. Small pets can be harmed by a baby that grabs and will not let go, all the while unaware that she is inflicting harm.

Toddlers (1 to 2 years). Toddlers still tend to treat living beings -- from parents and siblings to playmates and pets -- as objects to be stepped on, pushed, and pulled. Teddy bear or live puppy: it's all the same to a two-year-old.

Toddlers are mobile and active, and love to dash about, throw things, and explore the world around them. One veterinarian commented to me, "Nearly everything about a toddler is threatening to a dog -- and to almost any pet. They make loud noises and sudden movements. They poke and grab. They seem unpredictable and frenetic.

Parents are advised to keep toddlers and pets separate, or have an adult present to supervise their interaction. Because toddlers can form an attachment to family pets, this is a good time for parents to begin encouraging this bond and teaching children how to be gentle.

Three and Four Year Olds. Most three-year-olds are not able to control the impulse to chase, grab, tease, and occasionally scream at animals. (The more nervous the animal becomes as a result, the more exciting the game.) They don't fully comprehend that they are doing something unpleasant to the animal, and enjoy the fact that they can cause a reaction.

By the time my son was three, our old cat had passed on and we adopted two skittish feral kittens from the alley. Each time my son barreled into the room, they dashed under the couch, and he would laugh uproariously. He could not be convinced that this game was not as much fun for the kittens as it was for him. Yet, like other children at this age, he saw our pets as friends and playmates, and had real affection for them.

As children reach four years old, they gain more control over their impulses, behavior, and muscle coordination. Some children at this age learn to follow simple directions about how not to hurt or frighten their pets. Parents play an important role as teachers and examples in these human-animal interactions.

At this age, as well, it is recommended that children not be left alone with pets. A child may unintentionally harm a small animal by squeezing too tightly, or a child may be injured by a panicked animal who is being squeezed.

Children and Chores. Preschool children often enjoy helping to take care of a pet. Here are some of the chores that they can learn to do:

  • Hang up the dog's leash
  • Put away dog and cat food.
  • Put fresh water into a pet's water bowl from a plastic bottle.
  • Pour pre-measured dry pet food into a bowl or feeder; drop pre-measured fish food into an aquarium.
  • Put pre-washed, cut fruit or vegetables into a container for fancy (pet) mice and rats, gerbils, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits.

*The most important "job" of all for a young child is to have fun with -- and learn to love and respect -- a companion animal.

Happy Results. Bringing home a baby to meet an established pet, or bringing a pet home to meet a preschool child, need not result in extravagant burdens on parents. A healthy dose of caution, mixed with a liberal helping of understanding of how young children and pets experience each other, can lead to a comfortable, safe, and happy blend. During these early years, children learn to appreciate and enjoy companion animals, and begin relationships that will enrich their lives.