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Letting children, especially young children, and pets, especially new ones, play can be a little nerve wracking. The foremost worry is for the safety of the children, of course — it's more likely that an animal would physically hurt a child than the other way around. Unfortunately, kids can hurt pets too, and what's more, they can antagonize a pet to the point the animal will act out.
This is mostly due to two factors. First, children are still growing, learning, and testing boundaries, coupled with still learning how to verbalize their thoughts and needs. Second, pets can't verbalize at all, making it more difficult for them to communicate when they don't like something, want certain behaviors to stop, or are hurting. As a parent, you need to step in and fill this fundamental gap and help them understand each other.
Keep in mind that some animals simply aren't comfortable around children, and that's okay. When adopting a new pet, especially if it's older, make sure to talk to the shelter or rescue organization staff to make sure the animal is safe to live with kids. Similarly, if you already have kids and kid-friendly pets but are ready to adopt a new pet, make sure to ask if the animal is also comfortable with other animals. Bringing a pet into a home where it's uncomfortable will only make them more and more stressed, and thus more likely to hurt someone.
Sometimes, your children may not be comfortable around certain animals and new pets. While it's important to help your child overcome certain fears and become comfortable with new experiences, it's important to remember that sometimes forcing a child to interact with an animal — especially living with a pet — is not okay. Only you, as the parent, can make that determination, and some things can go without saying. You shouldn't buy a new pet tarantula for a kid with arachnophobia.
Kids are just as likely to lash out at an animal when they're afraid. Whether it's crying or screaming, or something as physical as pushing or hitting, this can create a bad atmosphere for the pet, even ones that are gentle and like kids. Since the pet is unable to understand, this can only create a cycle of tension that will inevitably lead to an animal defending itself.
Pets, especially young cats or dogs, can go through behavior training that will make them more likely to be comfortable with and behave around children. Once they've been trained, you can intercede with appropriate commands for the pet as well as the child. Sometimes, even pets that don't like kids can be trained to interact safely. This is especially good if there's a child that doesn't live with you that visits often or for long periods of time (e.g., when kids visit grandparents for the summer). Be sure to seek professional help with this. We can offer some great suggestions!
Of course, they're not the only ones that need training. Kids need training too! They're still learning the right ways to behave and the boundaries between "nice and playful" and "mean and hurtful." Without being taught, kids can't understand that they may think pulling on a pet's ears is funny (especially if the pet temporarily tolerates it) but the pet doesn't like it, making it a bad thing to do. Depending on the pet, there's also special ways you need to handle them; kids need to learn how to pick up rabbits or gerbils correctly, to wash their hands after handling certain reptiles, and not to tap on a fish tank window. Be sure to teach them when to leave your pets alone, such as when they're eating, when they're sleeping, or when they're defecating.
Below are more tips to keeping pets and kids happy and comfortable while they play:
Always supervise interactions, or have someone who understands the importance of child-animal safety supervise them. This will enable you to intervene and redirect any poor behavior as well as ensure the pet is never cornered.
Keep initial introductions between the child and the pet calm with you in control. This will influence their behavior and enable a pleasant hello.
Train animals like cats and dogs (especially if they're large) to not jump at new arrivals, especially children.
Use treats to reinforce positive associations and good behavior. This can be especially effective with cats.
Don't allow any roughhousing, especially if the pet and the child are still adjusting to each other. It can be hard to know if the pet is becoming anxious or if the child is going too far. It can also be hard to ensure your pet won't get too rough with the kid.
Similarly, don't let your child attempt to ride or lift large pets (e.g., dogs).
Learn the signs of anxiety and agitation in your pet (e.g., panting without exercise, growling, bared teeth, defensive postures) so you can tell when to separate your child from the animal.
Remember that any pet can act out and harm a child through scratching and biting.
Find ways to prevent pet toys and children toys from becoming confused in order to avoid territorialism.
Make sure your pet has a safe space to retreat to away from children. (This may be as simple as a dog crate or an elevated cat bed.) Being cornered or trapped will make an already anxious pet afraid and more likely to lash out.
Teach your child the appropriate way to approach animals, and to never try to approach or touch any animal that does not belong to your family.