If you have a pet and are expecting a baby, chances are you’ve had a conversation about what to do if your dog or cat gets jealous of your new addition, but we don’t always consider the reverse: as your child grows you might notice your pet is totally fine with the family structure, but your toddler or kid is oozing envy when it comes to the dog. If you’ve ever noticed your kid is jealous of your dog or cat, here’s why it happens and what you can do about it, according to experts. Life would be so much easier (and cuter) if they would just be best friends already.
My son Cooper is almost 3, and for most of his second year, he was a two-legged terror to our dog, Zelda. It seemed like whenever I wasn’t giving my son my undivided attention, he’d slap the dog or scream at her in order to draw my focus. If I had to break from playing with him to feed her or let her out to pee, it caused a tantrum. He’d overreact to anything she did — she once walked behind him without ever touching him, and he crumpled to the floor exclaiming, “My back!” It never occurred to me he might be jealous of the attention we gave the dog until she approached me for pets one day and he said, “No, my mama!”
When I started searching, I realized I wasn’t the first parent to witness the toddler-versus-dog jealousy dynamic. When I mentioned it at work, a colleague said her 10- and 13-year-olds also dealt with some envy when they brought home a new puppy. So, what gives? And how do you keep everyone in the fam (pet and human) happy?
What causes jealousy in a child?
Whether it’s your pet, your partner, or a sibling, whatever you pay attention to is going to catch your child’s eye — and seem like competition. It’s actually kind of to be expected, experts say.
“It’s normal for children to feel some jealousy when attention is not on them,” says Dr. Dan Marullo, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s of Alabama. “This can be due to a new pet, a new brother or sister, or Mom or Dad being busy. The issue then is not whether a child may be jealous but to teach them how to handle this emotion in a healthy way.”
Feeling jealous is not unique to young kids, Marullo says. “Everyone is susceptible to feeling jealous. Older children, teens, and adults can feel jealous if they feel their emotional needs are not being met. Perception can play a big factor here — a person can be getting as much attention as always, but not feel like they are getting the attention they need. Again, reassurance and teaching how to manage the emotions are the key.”
This weird attention economy can even affect families that are far more experienced with animals. Ellie Laks, animal communicator and founder of The Gentle Barn, a nonprofit animal rescue and rehabilitation organization, says her son began resenting the dogs, cats, and other animals she had to care for each day in his toddler years. She couldn’t care for him and them at the same time so she hired babysitters, but from her son’s point of view, she was leaving him with others so she could spend time with the animals. When her little one started acting out by pulling the dogs’ ears and tails, she knew she had to do something to keep everyone safe.
“I was obviously not going to get rid of my animals. They were family just like he was. But I had to come up with a plan to balance and make both my animals and my son happy,” she says.
How do you build a good relationship between kids and pets?
If you think your kid is jealous of your pet, it’ll take a little time and dedication, but you can remedy it. Marullo recommends:
- Making sure you have special time with your child in which they have your whole attention. This can be as little as five or 10 minutes.
- Offering reassurance to the child of their importance in the family, but reminding them that the pet deserves attention as well.
- Having the child participate, in an age-appropriate way, in your pet’s care. That could mean feeding, watering, bathing, or cleaning the cat box. This helps the child learn empathy, caring, and responsibility, which promotes self-esteem, Marullo adds.
- Staying the course. Give your child and pet time to work through this phase. Supervise and redirect as needed, but allow them to become friends — jealousy is just part of that process, Marullo says.
Hiring a trainer to help you teach your dog new commands may help too, Laks says. Having a dog who understands things like “sit,” “stay,” and “place” can help you give your child and dog space from each other when they need it.
Laks has one additional tip, which made a huge difference to my son when I tried it: “There were times when my kids were really little where I would say to my dogs, ‘Alright, it’s time for you to go out in the yard and play amongst yourselves because now I’m going to focus on my kid,’” she says. After about a week of this — telling my dog in front of my son that it was “Cooper and Mama time,” then letting her outside to play and giving him my undivided attention for that period — the jealousy seemed to basically disappear.
Of course, until your pet and child are on good terms, it’s best to supervise their interactions closely and keep them separate when you can’t. Not only can toddler slaps hurt a pet, but animal bites or scratches can seriously injure kids. While it’s frustrating to constantly shuffle all the members of your household around, remind yourself that you won’t have to play referee forever, Laks says.
“It was a lot of stress and a lot of work, but I had to keep reminding myself that he’s going to get older. This isn’t my forever,” Laks says. “I think a lot of people dump their dogs in shelters because refereeing between kids and animals gets so tenuous that they just don’t want to deal with them. Get the help that you need, get the resources that are going to set all of you up for success so that the dog does not need to be re-homed, and the child feels filled up.”
Dr. Dan Marullo, PhD, pediatric psychologist at Children’s of Alabama
Ellie Laks, animal communicator and founder of The Gentle Barn, a nonprofit animal rescue and rehabilitation organization