Pets & Kids

Learn the best ways to find and enjoy the perfect family pet

A parent's most frequent concerns about pets and children are addressed here to help you make owning a pet one of your child's most rewarding relationships.

Supper time: teaching children to feed your dog

Feeding is a routine part of pet care for many children. But because food-related aggression is a common problem in pet dogs, this particular job merits at least some caution. Even the most temperamentally reliable dog may bite if disturbed while eating.

How can parents encourage their children to participate in feeding while minimizing risks? If there is any history of growling, baring teeth, snapping or biting in any context, the child should not be feeding the dog. Instead, the dog should be fed in peace and quiet behind a door or baby gate. Feeding by children should be limited only to dogs with proven evenness of temperament. If the dog is fed by children from puppyhood, he can still develop food-related aggression as an adult.

The following routine can minimize risks. First, the food container should be kept in an area to which the dog has no access while bowls are being filled-for example, the pantry or laundry room. While the food is being prepared by the child, the dog should be kept in a distant down-stay or sit-stay position, or in another room. The bowl should then be placed on the floor, the child should walk away, and, by voice or by opening the door, allow the dog access to the bowl. By the time the dog reaches the bowl, the child should be at a safe distance.

Alternatively, for dogs reliably obedience trained, the dog can be told to "sit-stay" away from its feeding area while the child walks to the feeding spot and places the bowl on the floor. He then can return to the dog's side (without food) and call a "release" from the stay. This exercise allows the child to control the dog without being near the food. For safety, until the bowl is emptied and the dog elsewhere, children should leave dogs entirely alone while they eat.

Dealing with competition between children and pets

When competition is an issue between kids and pets, the primary solution lies with the pets. In some cases, our animals predate our children. As we all know, babies and toddlers especially, can eclipse the exclusive attention and care lavished upon cats and dogs. Such momentous changes can precipitate behavior problems in pets that had been perfectly behaved.

In some cases behavior problems are a result of the new household chaos. For example, cats whose litter box habits had been impeccable may suddenly inappropriately eliminate because their boxes are less frequently cleaned. Taken for fewer walks, dogs may develop vices such as chewing or barking. In many other cases, however, problems emerge because of social competition, and are not resolved by simple adjustments in cleaning or exercise schedules. Cats may go a step beyond inappropriate urination, which is relatively straightforward to correct, to urine spraying, which is not. Dogs with any tendency toward social dominance may go over the edge and threaten the child or parents. Similarly, anxious individuals may develop fully-blown separation anxiety or fearful behaviors. In these cases the problems are based in stress and social competition, perhaps loosely equivalent to human jealousy, although this term is seldom used by behaviorists because of its ambiguity and presumptions about the emotions of animals.

The solution of social competition problems depends upon the specific problem. In most cases, however, treatment includes a combination of stress reduction, attention paid to safety issues (especially bite prevention), and, if appropriate, temporary anti-anxiety medication. It is often recommended that attention to animals be limited (especially in the case of dogs) to times the child is awake and active, so that feeding, walks, petting and play are associated with the presence of the child-as long as it is safe. Because life can be quite complicated when children enter the picture, a consultation with a veterinarian or behavior specialist can be quite helpful.

Cats and kids: safe handling for life-long friendship

From the point of view of a small child, cats are soft and cuddly, but they are also potentially injurious. Their nails and teeth can deliver a serious scratch or bite, sometimes with infectious consequences. Unlike dogs, however, cats do not tend to bite unless actively restrained or frightened. With some reasonable precautions they are generally quite safe around small children.
Of course, any animal will protect itself if handled roughly or if sufficiently frightened. Some cats are more tolerant than others of being picked up and handled. If you know your cat has little patience for forced cuddling, ask your child not to lift her. Petting should be limited to brief strokes on the head and neck (avoid the lower back and the abdomen), preferably when the cat herself solicits contact. If lifted, cats should not be restrained or forced to stay where they do not want to be.
To prevent accidental clawing, keep your cat's nails trimmed and dull. If necessary, discuss the option of declawing with your veterinarian. Children are usually delighted to accept the responsibility of animal care, depending, of course, upon age, interest and ability. With cats, contributions to care can include feeding, gentle grooming and interactive play. Gentle handling and consistent care will keep your cat returning for more.