How to Introduce Your Kids to a New Pet
It's important to you that your pets lead healthier, happier lives. Whether you want veterinary advice, behavioral insight, or the best-in-market pet essentials that make every day more joyful, for both you and your cat or dog, The Well-Balanced Pet offers practical tips you can use.
Few things are more exciting than welcoming a new pet into your family. However, if you have kids at home, introducing them to an unfamiliar dog or cat can be intimidating for everyone involved. "While there can be a lot of pressure for children and pets to become fast friends, this time of major change should be managed with patience and understanding of the safety and welfare needs of both the child and pet," says Dr. Douglas Kratt, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "Any animal may bite or scratch if scared, and children need guidance to interact calmly with animals in a way that keeps everyone safe and supports the budding relationship."
Since even the friendliest of pets can get aggressive if they feel threatened, Dr. Kratt says it's important to keep your eyes peeled for signs that they're nervous when meeting a child. "Although signs that a pet is uncomfortable vary by species, some general behaviors to look for in dogs and cats include turning away or trying to escape, cowering, pinning their ears back flat, or opening their eyes very wide," he says. "If the pet is not then given space and made to feel safe, this can escalate to growling or a warning bite/scratch."
Preparing to bring a new pet home and not sure how to introduce it to your kids? We asked Dr. Kratt to walk us through the process.
Let the pet approach the child.
The first step to ensuring that the introduction process goes smoothly is to allow the pet to approach the child—and not the other way around. "This can be encouraged by the child dropping treats or a toy between them," Dr. Kratt says. "However, do not hand feed the pet as they might not be comfortable approaching yet, or could be too excited and accidentally pinch some fingers when grabbing the treat."
Get on the pet's level.
To make your pet feel more at ease during an introduction, Dr. Kratt recommends having both the adult and child squat down to be closer to the animal's level. "If your pet is comfortable being petted, gentle pats or rubs from the side by the shoulders are less threatening than coming from above," he says. "Avoid touching potentially sensitive areas such as the head, feet, tail, or belly (especially with cats)."
Put your pet on a leash (or behind a safety gate).
According to Dr. Kratt, keeping a dog or a harness-trained cat on a leash can help pace the introduction and provide some control over the pet's movement. "However, always provide the pet the option to leave the interaction and never use the leash to drag them toward the child," he warns. "Safety gates can be another valuable tool to control the initial introduction. The child can offer a hand to smell near, but not through, the open spaces of the gate, and the pet and child can see and hear each other without worrying about an excited dog knocking a child down by accident or a child scooping up a scared cat as their first interaction."
Keep things calm.
When introducing kids to a new animal, Dr. Kratt suggests reducing any distractions in the environment that might overwhelm or trigger fear in the pet, such as loud noises or a large gathering of people making a big deal about the introduction. "Coach the child to act calmly, avoiding sudden movements and yelling, which can startle the pet," he advises. "It is perfectly okay for the first few meetings to just have the child and pet doing their own activities in the same space. If possible, let the pet meet one member of the family at a time."
Always provide adult supervision.
Above all else, Dr. Kratt says it's the responsibility of the adult to advocate for the safety and welfare of both the child and the pet during the introduction. "Adult supervision is imperative at all times because young children are not equipped to interpret animal body language," he says. "Set your family up for success by being patient with everyone involved and preparing the child to respect the pet's need to feel safe in a new environment."