Hello, friends! If you’re landing here for the first time, we likely haven’t yet met. And knowing who I am is important in the context of this post. (BTW, I’d love to meet YOU, too, if you’d like to intro yourself and your family in the comments!)
I’m Maggie, mom to Violet, age 5; Astrid, age 3; Cooper, a 12-year-old pit mix; Newt, my 10ish-yearold black cat; and Ripley, a 5-year old tortie. We also have a small tank of fish, but they don’t get much air time.
I write about pets and kids and the planet–and often the intersection of those things–for a living. And in my role as a writer and in my interactions with other moms, I get asked about ALL the time: How do I keep my kids from tormenting my pets and vice versa?
Those questions really boil down to the most important question for parents who also share their homes with animals: How do I keep my kids and pets SAFE both with and from each other?
First things first
OBVIOUSLY you’re not the jerk who lets your kids climb all over your pets or grab their lips or pull their ears or yank their tails. OBVIOUSLY. (But if you are, don’t be that guy anymore. Seriously. Stop today.)
Kids need to know how to interact safely with animals to begin with. Even people who don’t have pets in the home need to teach kids how to be safe around dogs and cats because animals are everywhere!
Some general kindness and safety rules–don’t climb on animals, don’t grab tails and ears, don’t grab collars, don’t touch an unfamiliar animal without permission, and so on–are basics that ALL children need to know. Your job is to teach your children pet safety rules and to model good behavior.
For families with pets in the home, it’s unfair to expect your pets to know what to do and what not to do around your children, especially if you have a dog or cat who is uncomfortable around kids. You, as the human and the parent, need to take on this responsibility. So, here are three pet safety tips for kids you can start to implement today!
Tip 1: Teach your kids basic animal behavior and body language.
Starting when your kids are little, teach them to observe how their pets behave and what those behaviors mean. Point out when your dog is wagging his tail in excitement or when your cat is swishing her tail in irritation. The more you observe and speak out loud, the more your kids will absorb. Stay neutral but educational.
“I’m noticing Fluffy’s eyes look extra big and her tail is swishy. That tells me she’s feel uncomfortable, so let’s go in the other room to give her some space.”
“Fido sure seemed happy when I got home from work! I could tell because his tail was wagging quickly and he was spinning his body in circles!”
“I see Tiger hiding behind the bookshelf. That is his way of telling you that playtime is over. Let’s go color in the kitchen and give Tiger time to recharge.”
Quick note re: growling. A growl is a warning. A growl says I’m uncomfortable, I’m unhappy, I’m in pain. Never correct your dog’s growl. Take it as the warning that it is. Intervene swiftly, then teach your kid what was going on. Correct your child’s behavior, not the growl.
To see some helpful resources on teaching kids basic animal behavior, check out Dog Bite Prevention: Safety First for Kids and Pets.
Tip 2: Always give your pets escape routes.
This is especially true for cats. Here’s our living room setup: One doorway has a baby gate that swings open and closed. It remains open most of the day unless we need to give Cooper space away from the girls. The second doorway has a baby gate that is always closed. It has a little cat door in the middle that remains open. That gives Newt and Ripley the chance to come or go as they please regardless of whether or not the other gate is open. Likewise, my office has a baby gate that is short enough for them to jump over. My office is their extra “safe” space. There’s a cat tree, a water dish, and a litter box. They can come in here to get away from the humans–and the dog–anytime they want. We’ve taught Violet and Astrid that the gates are there for safety, and they know not to open them to get to a cat.
Cooper has free reign of the house and can decide where he wants to be–or not be–at any time. He, however, is a Velcro dog. He only wants to be with me. Forever and always. And since I often have to be hands-on with Violet and Astrid, he’s usually with us. When the girls were really little, I enforced a “follow me” cue so I was sure he was never left alone with babies.
Bottom line: Your pets should never feel trapped or backed into a corner. Allow them plenty of chances to leave any space. And if they do get stuck somehow, or if you need them to leave for safety, remove them either behind a gate or with a “follow me” cue.
Read more safety tips for dogs who live with babies: Dogs and Babies: Can everyone get along?
And a version for dogs who live with toddlers because toddlers can be… well… toddlers: Dogs and Toddlers: A Realistic and Honest Guide to Keeping Them Safe From Each Other.
Tip 3: Don’t force your pets to do anything. But DO enforce pet-safety boundaries for your kids.
You are the adult human. You are the voice for the animals in your home, and you are the voice of reason for the tiny humans in your home.
I’ve seen parents force their pets to endure being patted by kids when they clearly didn’t want to be. I’ve seen parents drag their pets by the collar or scoop them up instead of letting them get away. Sure, we would love our pets and kids to get along, but not at the cost of safety and agency.
Don’t force your pets to do anything. (I mean, obviously, within the realm of reason and safety. If you have to put your dog in another room with the door closed to keep everyone safe, so be it. That’s not what I mean.)
Do teach your kids boundaries for responsible pet interactions (think: Don’t touch an animal who is drinking, eating, or chewing a toy.) and create a sense of responsibility in your kids to be kind to animals.
If you want to get your kids involved in taking care of the pets in your home, I have an awesome guide to teaching your kids how to jump into pet-care chores.
Kids and Pets Can Be Best Friends… or Worst Enemies
Strive for the former by helping your kids know how to interact safely with your pets. A bond is more likely to form if there’s trust and safety.
If you have a house filled with humans and animals, what are your family’s boundaries or pet safety rules? Any tips or tricks to add to this list, or questions I can answer or solutions I can help brainstorm for your family? I’d love to hear them in the comments!