A boy and his cat play on the floor.

Teaching Pets and Children to Get Along

Stay-at-home orders have made it even more challenging to balance parenthood and pet parenthood. Houses are more crowded and — even with well-behaved pets — tensions can occasionally run high. Alla Katsnelson of The New York Times notes that, while pets tend to tolerate “pokes and prods” from children, “such interactions can also be highly stressful.” Even if a pet doesn’t lash out by hissing, scratching, or biting, the stress of unwanted attention can “diminish their quality of life.”

We reached out to pet behavioral specialists to get their tips for safely introducing cats and dogs to your children and maintaining a harmonious home.

Supervision Is Everything

When it comes to pets and children, supervision is Rule #1. It’s especially crucial in homes with babies and toddlers. Dog trainer and blogger Danielle Muhlenberg advises parents to monitor all interactions between their pets and young children. This will not only help to prevent conflicts, but will make it easy to address and correct bad behavior immediately. It’s obviously not possible to keep both children and pets within reach at all times. If you know you’ll be unable to prevent a potential conflict, consider using partitions like baby gates to separate your pets and children.

Teach By Example

One of the easiest ways to teach your children how to interact with pets is to lead by example and let them play an (age-appropriate) role in pet care. Muhlenberg suggests that dog owners could bring their children along for walks and invite them to take part in “training, grooming, and feeding.” These experiences will teach them how to respectfully interact with pets and establish a trusting, loving relationship.

Parents should also take care to educate their children on appropriate pet discipline. Feline behaviorist Shadi Delshad says that cat owners should “never physically discipline their cat.” Dog parents should follow the same advice. Physically disciplining a pet is not only inhumane, but sets a bad example. Your child might repeat the behavior and inspire a cat or dog to retaliate. Delshad remarks that firmly saying “no” and placing pets in “time out” are usually effective in discouraging bad behavior.

Set and Respect Boundaries

Successful pet parenthood depends on a number of literal and metaphorical boundaries. In the literal sense, it’s crucial that dogs and cats have a space of their own inside the home. This is often simpler for cats who can easily find isolated, private spaces. Since dogs can’t crawl under furniture or climb onto cupboards, their space might be a special crate or bed. Breeder and professional handler Lindsey Johns emphasizes the importance of respecting this space. She writes, “[dogs] may be protective over their space and won’t appreciate a child crawling in there with them.” Parents of especially young children may consider setting up their dog’s personal space in a room their child can’t access.

Children are understandably excitable when a new pet joins the family, but certain types of play are always unacceptable. Johns notes that standing or climbing on dogs is among the worst. Many dogs will perceive this as a “sign of dominance” and potentially become frustrated and aggressive.

Muhlenberg writes that parents should encourage their children to help reinforce boundaries. “If your dog is not allowed on the couch,” for example, you might encourage your child to remind them with a command. This will not only teach children to respectfully behave with dogs, but will also “establish them as an authority figure.”

Know the Warning Signs

Pet cats and dogs almost never attack without warning. Typically, their body language and demeanor will suggest they’ve reached their limit. It’s important that parents learn to identify these signs as well as the behaviors that tend to trigger them. Stephanie Mantilla, a reinforcement-based animal trainer, encourages pet owners to do some quick internet research into their specific breed’s behavioral signs. In general, she notes that aggressive dogs will often “yawn or lick excessively.” Certain eye movements can also present a warning sign. She advises cat owners to listen for “vocalized chirps” and watch for “tail swishes” that could precede biting or clawing.

Be Patient and Persistent

Behavioral experts return to two key themes more than any others, patience and persistence. Teaching your pets and children to get along is a learning process, one that will always involve some trial and error. With time (and patience and persistence) your pet and child won’t just learn to live together, but learn to love one another.