Children and pets are a match made in heaven. Even the most skeptical parents give in sooner or later and get their children a kitty or a puppy because they know that growing up with a pet has many benefits for a child’s emotional development: pets help children develop social skills, they teach empathy, comfort kids with cognitive disorders and are reliable, enthusiastic playmates. However, behind every child’s happy pet memory there is a parent trying to deal with both rascals, because having a family pet isn’t always fun and games. There will be some challenges and, the sooner you learn how to overcome them, the safer and happier your child will be.
Some pets are not family-friendly
Interacting with pets is great for kids, but not all animals are family-friendly. In fact, one of the first things you should check before welcoming a pet into your family is their behavior around children.
Dog breeds to avoid
Dogs are most popular family pets, so here are some things to consider:
- Consider the child’s age. If your child is only a toddler, a very large dog could intimidate or frighten them. A puppy or a small to medium size dog is recommended in this case.
- Aggressive dog breeds. Like people, dogs have unique personalities. For example, not all Pitbulls are aggressive, they can actually be good with kids if they are trained properly, but at the same time, dogs can have genetic predispositions towards losing their temper. If you have children, it’s safer to get them a patient family-friendly dog that doesn’t become irritated when a child pulls them by the ears or tries to take their food. The most recommended dog breeds for children include Boxers, Mastiffs, Golden Retrievers and American Staffordshire Terriers. Breeds to avoid include Rottweilers, Dalmatians and Chihuahuas.
- Nervous and impatient dogs. While these dogs may not necessarily be aggressive, they are recommended for older children and teenagers, because they get scared quickly, are impatient and get triggered easily: Weimaraner, Chow-Chow, Husky, Akita Inu and Alaskan Malamute. They are hyperactive dogs that have a lot of energy and they hurt kids while trying to play. Also, another problem with these dogs is that they can become overprotective and possessive of the child and try to bite others who try to come close.
- Older dogs. If you’ve had a dog in the family for many years, it will take a while for them to get used to your newly born child. Depending on how they were raised, they might not accept the new member of the family and you might have to train them to be around kids. Unfortunately, older dogs are harder to train and the two might not get along that well.
Other animals that don’t make great family pets include: cats (they can become very aggressive around children who try to pet them), birds, rodents, and certain exotic pets such as reptiles.
Before you can enjoy the peace of mind that your child is always 100% safe around the family pet, you need to teach your child how to treat the pet in a responsible way:
- Teach your child a few basic dog training techniques and help them understand their body language. This way, they’ll know what to do when the dog raises its ears, pushes its body back or takes a fighting stance.
- Tell your children that pets are not toys. From an early age, they should understand that animals have feelings too, and they shouldn’t be hurt or teased.
- Teach your child to be responsible and take care of the pet if he/she is old enough for this. Tell them that a puppy isn’t in the family just for the play time and that they should also contribute to feeding and cleaning up after them.
Hygiene & health issues
Doctors generally agree that growing up with a pet isn’t as unhealthy as some people think and that early exposure to animals actually strengthens the immune system and raises tolerance to allergens. Even children with asthma can be around pets, as long as you follow some basic health and hygiene rules:
- If you have a cat, you should clean the litterbox every day. Don’t let small children do that, however, because they can be contaminated with parasites.
- Use a special vacuum for pets to remove the pet hairs off the carpet and inside the pet’s bed. Wash the bedding regularly to get rid of dirt or parasites.
- Teach your child to always wash their hands after playing with their pet
- If your child has asthma and you have a shedding pet, do not let them sleep in the same room or the same bed
- Check your pet for ticks and fleas regularly to avoid contamination
- Pet toys can pose a choking hazard to small children, so don’t let be around them unsupervised
Helping children cope with the loss of a pet
This is one of the toughest jobs that a parent has to do, because kids can become very emotionally attached to their little companions and finding out that their beloved pet is no longer around can be devastating. Whether your pet died because of old age, an illness or an accident, the way you break the bad news depends on how old or emotionally mature the child is.
If you have an old dog in the family, it might be a good idea to gradually introduce the child to the idea that one day it will be gone. You could explain to them that the vet did everything possible, but euthanizing the pet is the best solution because it doesn’t hurt or scare them. Needless to say, you have to choose your words very carefully, depending on how aware your child is of the notion of death.
If the pet has an accident, explaining what happened will be harder for you. Many parents prefer to protect their children and tell them that their furry friend ran away or you sent them off to live in the countryside, but this isn’t always a good idea. Unless the child is very small, it’s best to explain to them that their pet will not be coming back and that it’s ok to feel sad. Do not dismiss your child’s grief, because the emotional bond between kids and their pets is sometimes stronger than that between relatives. Talk about the passed pet with love, help your child understand and cope with their feelings and, after a while, you can even suggest getting a new pet.