A pet can bring great joy to a child, as well as teaching them about responsibility and providing them with a special friendship during important formative years of their development. Kids often form deep bonds with their pets. However, if you’re bringing a new pet into the home, there are some pitfalls to be aware of—not every new pet introduction goes smoothly. Children can be unpredictable and unaware of a pet’s fragility, and a frightened pet could present a danger. Here are a few first aid and animal behavior tips you should be aware of to make sure this new friendship gets started smoothly.
Choose the right pet during the right time in the child’s development
While each pet is an individual, some breeds and species are more even-tempered than others—and better suited to children at different ages. A large dog with a lot of energy could be great for middle-school-age children, but could be inadvertently dangerous to a toddler. Cats can be more sensitive to noise and will be frightened of aggressive, rambunctious children who are more interested in chasing the cat than petting it. Rabbits and cats might be roughly the same size, but rabbits are much more fragile and do not hold up as well to being picked up and handled by young children who might not know enough to be careful.
You might not have a choice about when to introduce your child and your pet—if the pet was there first. But in most cases, children under six years old are the most likely to encounter problems with pets, and it’s important to talk to a veterinarian and research carefully if you are set on getting one.
Give the pet time to adjust
Even the most outgoing pet will need some time to get accustomed to a new environment. Keep the pet in a single room for a few days with food, water and a litter box (for cats); let the pet get used to the new home and the children gradually. Kittens and cats may need as many as a few weeks to get acclimated to a new home, and should be played with for only an hour or two each day. With cats and kittens, it is a good idea to provide a cat door into a quiet room that the children don’t have access to.
Establish firm rules for interacting with the pet
Talk to your child before the pet is introduced. Explain how to interact with the pet safely. Children should be instructed not to be too rough, not to try to hold or restrain a pet that does not want to be; and to avoid making sudden movements, rushing at a pet, or being excessively loud around the pet. Children should also be shown how to feed the pet safely without risk of being bitten.
Know basic first aid for bites and scratches
While some dogs might give a more serious bite out of aggression or fear, most dog bites are warning bites—not deep, although they might be scary for the child. Cats can scratch when threatened, afraid, or in warning mode, and a wide variety of pets might also bite.
If the skin has been broken, clean the wound carefully with soap and water. If it is bleeding, place a clean towel or sterilized bandage over it and apply pressure to stop the flow of blood. Elevate the injured limb above the heart to further slow the blood flow. If this is a smaller wound, apply antibiotics to keep an infection from starting. If the wound is more serious, appears to be large or deep, or was given by a pet you do not know, call 911 immediately.
Avoid letting pets sleep in children’s beds
While it is not uncommon for pets to sleep in the same bed with children, it is generally not advisable. Both cats and dogs can have fleas and ticks as well as parasites that can move from the animal to its owners, and children’s immune systems are not as developed as adults’, making them more vulnerable to illness. Pets should especially not be allowed to sleep in the same bed with a child who has allergies, or any children under the age of three.
If you have a cat, keep children away from the litter box
Most health-related concerns surrounding cats and children are associated with children coming into contact with cat feces. Parasites such as roundworms, as well as harmful bacteria, can be transmitted to children who handle cat feces before putting their hands in their mouths, for example. For this reason, it’s best to keep the litter box in a place that is inaccessible to young children, and leave the litter-cleaning chores to the adults.
Know what to do in case of a choking hazard
Pet toys and pet food can both cause choking hazards, especially for young children who may not realize that brightly-colored bouncy ball is the cat’s toy, not their teething toy. If a baby is unable to cough, cry, or speak, they may be choking. If there are other adults in the room, have someone call 911 while you give care; if you are alone, give care for two minutes before calling.
The techniques are different for infants as well as children of various ages; it’s a good idea to take a class in first aid that involves choking hazards for children the same age as those in your household.
Pets and children can form deep friendships that can prove important to the children throughout their lives. However, pets and children don’t always get along right away, and the biggest danger usually comes for kids under the age of nine. If you’re considering getting a pet, be aware of the breed and type of pet you choose—talk to a breeder or veterinarian if you aren’t sure. Learn first aid for a variety of problems that might happen when kids and pets mix, and be sure your children know how to safely interact with the pet. With some forethought and planning, this could be the beginning of something beautiful.