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Pets and children - how to make it work

Pets and children - how to make it work

Children love pets - but, unfortunately, it's not always mutual. Here's how to make sure they get along famously. From the PetPeople magazine features archive

When you eventually succumb to your child's persistent pleas of wanting a pet, you will discover that it offers many benefits for young ones. As children learn how to care for an animal, they also learn consideration and respect for other living things. Their nurturing helps them to develop responsible behaviour and social skills that will help them later in life. In addition, they will form a special bond of friendship with the pet.

Whichever pet you choose, it is important that children are taught the correct way to look after, handle and interact with it. This is vital for the child's safety, but also for the welfare of the family pet.

How to choose the best pet for your family
Before buying a pet, do some research about the sort that would best suit your family. In the UK, the choice will commonly be a dog, cat or rabbit. If the children want a puppy, there are many considerations. Ask yourself if you have the time to look after it? If you lead a busy family life and the children are involved in lots of after-school activities, who is going to walk the dog? Remember that a dog will live for about 13 years, depending on breed.

Cats, while they do not need walking, live even longer on average. Many of the smaller 'furry' pets, such as hamsters and mice, have a much shorter lifespan. But remember, some species, such as hamsters, are nocturnal, so are asleep during the day. They don't always appreciate being woken up when the children come home from school!

You also need to consider the type of house you have: do you have the space for a large animal? Is there a garden for a dog or cat to run around in? Is it fully enclosed so a dog can't get out? Is there enough space for a rabbit or guinea pig hutch? Smaller animals, such as rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, rats, mice, birds or fish may be more suited to living in a smaller home or apartment.

Managing those first introductions
Young children and pets must always be supervised when together, especially during that first introduction. They love kittens and puppies, but it's important that a child does not 'crowd' or over-handle the new family member, especially during its first few days in your home. Little, often and gently is the key.

Children can't always pick up on warning signs that, for example, a dog is uncomfortable with the interaction. As an adult, it's your responsibility to ensure the situation does not get out of hand. Children can sometimes be a little rough when handling pets, so they need to be taught they should be gentle and not continually 'pester' the animal.

When dealing with pets such as dogs and cats, teach your children to call the pet so it approaches the child, rather than allowing the child to run after the pet to get hold of it. If an animal trusts a child and does not feel threatened, it will be more than happy to approach.

Advice for pet owners expecting their first child
If you have a pet but no children, there's a chance you may encounter problems when you start a family. A baby arriving in the home is a huge change for the parents and even more so for a pet. Dogs that were the centre of attention may feel ignored as focus turns to the baby, and may develop attention-seeking behaviour; anxious cats may start to spray in the house. It is important that you introduce your pets to the sounds of a baby before a child arrives and that routines are kept as normal as possible. Record the sound of babies crying and play it daily a few weeks before the baby is born, initially at a low volume, gradually increasing to a normal level. Alternatively, a baby introduction CD, called Sounds Soothing, is available from www.soundtherapy4pets.com.

To create harmony in your home, take time to research your pet's needs and to teach children how to act around your pet. This way you should have a wonderful pet that the whole family can safely enjoy for many happy years.

Warning signs to watch for
The following animal actions can mean that your pet is not happy:
A flicking tail in a cat can mean that it is irritated.
A dog licking its nose, yawning or turning its head away are signs that it is not comfortable in a situation.A dog walking away or hiding under a table signals that it is not happy. These signs may escalate to the dog stiffening up, growling and possibly snapping.
A frightened rabbit will press its body against the ground and have its ears flattened against its head. Its facial muscles will tighten, making its eyes look as if they might pop out.

A dog may bark when excited, but be aware of the type of bark, especially if it is playing with children, as it can also be a sign that a dog is frightened.

Here are some ways to get the kids involved:

Feeding: Getting children involved can help to create a stronger relationship between them and the pet. It also helps to teach them responsibility and how to look after an animal.

Grooming: Regular grooming helps a dog or cat get used to being handled. If all members of the family get involved, the pet will be generally more tolerant of anyone handling it, including the vet.

Vet visits: Take older children with you to the veterinary surgery so they can learn about the need for regular veterinary check-ups and about worm and flea control.

Training: Encourage children to become involved in training the dog - they can teach them fun tricks while making the dog more obedient to them.

Walking: Dogs need regular exercise and should be walked daily. If your children regularly walk the dog, it will also ensure they get exercise too!

by Inga MacKellar, Animal Behaviourist

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