Infants & Toddlers
Infants and toddlers should be monitored by an adult when spending time with pets. Most young children are attracted to pets and want to interact with them, but infants and toddlers can’t distinguish between living beings and inanimate objects. To them, pets are the equivalent of moving stuffed toys. They can’t comprehend that pulling on a pet’s tail or hitting with a hard object will cause pain. Because of this, should a pet try to escape their grasp, they might become frustrated, squeezing too tightly or lashing out in anger, causing the pet to shy away from future interactions.
By two years old, most children can learn to put their pet’s toys away in a box that’s separate from their own toys. If your child neglects to put his own toys away and your pet chews on them, remove the damaged toy for several weeks. This will help your child learn to be more protective of his toys. Likewise, teach your child to leave your pet’s toys alone, except when they’re playing together. This is similar to training a child to leave his sibling’s things alone.
Never leave a child under the age of three unsupervised with an animal. Children older than this should regularly demonstrate good judgment and self-control before you allow them to be alone with a pet.
By the age of three, children are capable of playing simple, interactive games with their pets. Using their voice and small treats, they can persuade most pets to pay attention to them, retrieve a ball and join in chase games. They can also help fill your pet’s food and water bowls. Although parents should still closely monitor interactions, children of this age can also learn to respect a pet’s boundaries. For example, you can teach your child to keep his distance while your cat eats her dinner or while your dog is occupied with a safe chew toy. However, children this young can’t understand that a pet’s mind works differently than theirs does. If your pet destroys a treasured item or plays roughly enough to hurt your child, your three-year-old might think your pet did it on purpose and feel justified in punishing him.
An eight-year-old fully understands that an animal has thoughts and feelings that are unique to her as an individual and as a member of a different species. Children this age have learned about animals through a combination of the following:
- Trial and error—getting direct feedback from a pet when she growls, scratches, runs away, purrs, licks and cuddles in response to a child’s behavior
- Watching both adults and other children interact with pets and modeling their behavior on that of others
- Being taught that a pet is a member of the family and deserves respect and consideration
- Absorbing media depictions of animals—both realistic and misleading
- Learning about animals in educational settings like schools, zoos and aquariums
If your child is under the age of 13, don’t leave him in charge of your pet outside your home, even if the pet is on a leash. Likewise, don’t expect a youth under the age of 15 to be able to control a pet in potentially dangerous situations, such as encountering loose dogs while walking the family dog.
We know that teenagers rely on their pets to comfort and console them when problems arise with peers, but they can also direct irrational rage at their pets. For example, a teenager might become angry and react irrationally if her pet destroys her personal items. Teens can also lose interest in their pets as they become preoccupied with peers. Later, they might feel guilty if their neglect caused their pet to be re-homed.