Pets. The furry (or scaly!) family members we love so much, the creatures in our homes that do not speak our language but we’ve bonded with regardless. We buy them special food. We buy them special potty areas or spend time taking them outside. We may need to walk them, let them out of cages, or just let them freely roam our homes, getting fur on everything. They require care totally different than our human children, but we do it for them because we love them.
Some of us may have had an animal (or several) before we had children. Some of us may have had children before we had animals. Either way, some may wonder, is it possible to have small children with smaller animals? I think it’s just a matter of teaching children the right way to behave with and around animals, and teaching them when an animal wants to be left alone. We have a cat, three guinea pigs, and two massive rabbits, and we all live somewhat peacefully. (I say somewhat because our rabbits still hate each other right now, something we are working on).
Our cat, Chaos, is eight years old. He was “my” cat before he became “our” cat. I got him when he was seven weeks old. He has been my buddy through everything: breakups, multiple moves, roommates with other cats, job losses and changes, to a new boyfriend, a pregnancy, a baby, a second pregnancy, and a new baby with the first baby becoming a toddler. He is the coolest cat I have ever met. He plays fetch, begs for bacon and the center of Oreos, is SUPER friendly, comes when he is called, greets me at the door, and sleeps on my bed, sometimes annoyingly on my pillow. He knows when I am sad and is there for the snuggles (which he loves). He is nineteen pounds of love and fur, and he tolerates everything.
My son is now three and a half and when he was a baby, Chaos was NOT a fan. He avoided the baby as much as he could, even though my son just wanted to be near or on him. I taught my son “nice pets,” and showed him how we nicely pet the cat. He eventually learned, the cat eventually tolerated him, and over time they have become best buddies. Chaos learned that if he meows and begs for treats early in the morning, my son will be the one to give him some. My daughter, who is fourteen months, just wants to snuggle and lay on the cat, something he doesn’t enjoy from her but still tolerates. We are still working on “nice pets” with her daily. Their relationship is a work in progress, which I am sure over time will blossom into the same snuggly relationship like the one my son and my cat have.
As for the guinea pigs, teaching the kids how to handle them was very similar. When we take them out to be held and pet, we taught our children “nice pets,” the same way we taught them with the cat. We started by showing them how we pet them, and then we guided their hands along their fur, helping them to nicely pet the pigs. At the same time, we said “nice pets,” and praised them when they did well. It didn’t take much since they learned with the cat and it was the same idea.
My poor rabbits, though. All they want to do is hop around, but my kids are so excited to play with and pet them, it turns into a chase rather than just playing. Again though, it was the same idea: “nice pets.” Once the rabbits calm down, they just relax on the floor and the kids will lay next to them, petting them and talking to them. Sometimes the baby will slap them, but she is getting much better about how she pets them.
For us, “nice pets” along with demonstrations of nice petting has been working. We always watch the kids and the animals when they are together so no person or animal is hurt. If the children can’t behave with the animals, we remove one from the situation (animals back in the cage or a child goes to another room/ another part of the room we are in). We always remind the kids of behavior around animals and things to watch out for/ not do (i.e. don’t pull the cat’s tail, don’t smack the pigs).
It is just like any other thing we teach our children: repetition and practice.
We repeat the “rules” with the animals daily, demonstrate them ourselves, and we always practice petting nicely. We show them how we give them treats so they can do the same, and we redirect the kids if the animals are having “a day” (us people have them, why can’t animals?). Having our children see how we are with our pets sets a good example for them to follow. By doing this daily, we make it possible for small children and small animals to peacefully live together.
Except for our rabbits. They refuse to follow these examples.