It’s not unusual for a young child to handle his pet a bit roughly. He may touch its eyes, pull its fur, put his fingers in its ears, and even sit on it. One child carried her hamster in a bag, while another let his pet gerbil “have fun rolling down the steps.”
Parents frequently react to such mistreatment by saying, “How would you like it if someone did that to you?” One veterinarian became so irritated by the way his daughter carried the family’s new dog that he carried his daughter around the same way to show her what such treatment felt like. However, logic and examples have little effect on children under five, who have a difficult time putting themselves in another person’s (or pet’s) place.
Your child doesn’t mean to cause harm when he mishandles his pet. He just intends to play with it and explore it, and he doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions. In fact, most children are very fond of their pets and develop strong emotional attachments to them. One child, seeking acceptance after his father disciplined him, hugged his cat and said, “You like me; you’re my friend.” Children often share feelings with their pets. “Mommy won’t let me go outside and I want to.”
Your child may feel a great deal of affection for his pet, but if he’s under five years old, you’ve probably seen him mistreat the animal. In order to protect your pet, show your child exactly how to handle it, and be prepared to remind him of this often. You may also have to set consequences: “If you handle the dog roughly, you won’t be allowed to play with him.”
If your child is four or five years old, consistent reminders (“Touch Chloe softly”) and firm limits (“That’s too rough”) should work, but if he’s three or under, he’s too young to remember how to play with a pet safely. In any case, you’ll need to supervise closely when your child plays with his pet. Because watching a young child and a pet takes a lot of time and energy, many parents decide not to get a pet until their child is at least five years old. At this age, a child has an easier time understanding how a pet should be handled.