Pets are a lot of fun and rules, well, not so much. But, in order to really enjoy your family pets — and to know with confidence that they enjoy you, too — it’s important to have good, general pet etiquette rules for your kids. Pets are people, too, after all. Well, OK, they’re not people. But they’re animals and they deserve to be treated with respect, and to feel safe in your home. Not only that, but in order to keep your kid safe, they need to understand safe ways to interact with a dog or cat, both in your home and when they encounter an animal — wild or domesticated — out in the world. Teach your kids these simple rules for kids around dogs and cats, and keep the cuddly times rolling.
Pet etiquette rule #1: Let them come to you
A good general rule for all animals — whether it is your own pet or one you see on a walk — is to let them come to you, says Valli Parthasarathy, veterinary behaviorist and owner of Synergy Behavior Solutions in Portland, Oregon. If a family pet is resting, eating, drinking water, or snoozing, for example, it’s important to make sure that your kids know to leave the pet alone. They’re busy, and it’s best to let them be.
Why? Well, a few reasons, Parthasarathy says. “The vast majority of bites to children are preventable, and most of the bites that happen towards children are by known dogs and their own dogs,” she explains. Learning the basics about when it’s appropriate to approach a pet — and when is not — is a key prevention tool. “If we can have them wait for the animal to start the interaction, then we know that the animal is interested.”
Pet etiquette rule #2: Confirm consent
You’re probably already talking to your child about bodily consent. Many of us talk daily with our children about asking for consent, reminding to ask their friend if they’d prefer a hug or a high five when it’s time to say goodbye, for example. Parthasarathy says parents can simply extend those conversations and ways of thinking towards the family pet, too.
Just like people, sometimes pets want to be touched, and sometimes they don’t, she explains, saying that parents can help children learn to ask themselves: Does this pet want to be touched? When does the cat want to be touched? When does the dog want to be touched? When should we just leave them alone? If the pet is busy, or seems stressed, those are signs that the child should understand that it’s not a time to bother the pet.
Pet etiquette rule #3: Don’t let your kid manhandle your pet
While it may be pretty cute to see your toddler lay on your dog like a pillow, it can be hard to tell if your pet is enjoying the moment, or merely tolerating it. Parents should avoid letting their kids climb on pets, lay on pets, squeeze them, and even give them kisses on their faces, says Parthasarathy. “There are many videos on YouTube right now of children and pets, and if you watch the pets body language, they’re actually very, very stressed about the interaction,” she says. “Many pets tolerate the interaction, but tolerance has its limits.” If you aren’t sure if your pet is stressed, work closely with your family vet or seek help from a pet behaviorist.
It’s important to recognize that like people, every pet, no matter how good they have been historically, has their limits. In order to keep everyone safely living together, it’s important to stay far away from pushing on or towards those limits. “Every dog has the capacity to bite. Every cat has the capacity to scratch, no matter how friendly that animal is,” Parthasarathy says. Families should make sure that they protect their pet’s tolerance to make sure that their relationship with kids is a really good and strong one leading into the future.
Pet etiquette rule #4: Introduce your children to new cats and dogs with caution
Introducing kids to a new dog:
Even less predictable can be interactions with dogs and cats that your child may encounter at the park or on a walk, or even at a friends’ house. Whether your kid is passionate about animals, or a little nervous around animals that aren’t familiar, Parthasarathy shares these simple rules for interacting with dogs outside of your home:
- Children should not approach dogs that aren’t theirs without their parent present.
- When approaching a dog, it’s essential to ask the dog owner whether or not it’s OK to come closer.
- Like at home, allow animals to make the first approach.
- Know that some dogs really like children, some dogs really don't. If the owner lets you know that their dog isn’t comfortable with kids, trust them and move on. If there’s no owner present, do not approach the dog.
- Make sure your child knows the signs of stress in a pet, like having their tail between their legs (for dogs) or puffy tails for cats.
- Teach them to appreciate admiring dogs from a distance.
If your child is truly an animal lover, it’s essential to lean into the joy of loving from a safe distance, urges Parthasarathy. “Being able to admire at a distance is a really important skill for not just with pets, but also wild animals,” she explains.
Additionally, if your child has a close relationship with your own family dog, that can sometimes spill over — counterintuitively — into a greater need to teach them boundaries with animals out in the world. “Sometimes children who are raised with dogs who are very tolerant and are used to doing a whole bunch of physical stuff with their dog may then interact that same way with other dogs,” she explains. A lack of boundaries can lead to problems, because sometimes those children then act the same way around the dogs that don't feel as comfortable with it.
Introducing kids to a new cat:
Most of us know that cats are a bit more openly finicky than dogs and don’t feel inclined to go up to a cat that’s resting on a porch. However, if they walk towards you, can you trust that they’re looking for pets? Maybe, says Parthasarathy. Here are her general rules for interacting with the neighborhood fluff balls:
- If cats don't come up to you and rub their face or bodies against you, don't touch them.
- If they do rub against you, you can then put your hand down, and if they rub against your extended hand, you can pet them gently along the chin.
- Don’t pet a cat along their back, as that can be really overstimulating for some cats and make them fiesty.
Some cats, she adds, will defend their property. So, if you’re on a walk and a cat is coming towards you showing any signs of stress or aggression — ears to the side, tail up, and so on — you may want to keep an eye on that cat, and keep moving. Definitely don’t pet it. Parasites and fleas are always a concern when interacting with cats that aren’t your own, she adds, so keep it brief and use your judgement.
Pet etiquette rule #5: Teach your child to “be a tree”
“Be a tree” is a technique more for if your child ends up in an interaction with a dog that is on the loose or acting quite aggressively. “Rather than try to go towards it, or try to run away from it, ‘be a tree’ and be still,” explains Parthasarathy. “The dog is less likely to chase something that's being still.” As your child stands super still, trying to be as still as possible and be as uninteresting as possible, they can also yell for help if they need it.
Pet etiquette rule #6: Follow the 3-second rule
If you’re interacting with a pet that you don't know, Parthasarathy suggests sticking to gentle, quick scratches under the chin. “You don't know what it is that is going to be a potential trigger for this particular pet,” she explains. “Some dogs, if you reach over their heads, that scares them. Or reaching over the back can be upsetting for other dogs.”
So, it’s always best to start with a quick pet, and following what she calls “the three-second rule,” where — if a pet has approached and is looking interesting in being pet — you pet them under the chin for three seconds gently, then stop and then see what happens. “Do they engage with you again? If they engage with you again, then do another three second pet. But, if they're not actively engaging with you, then hands-off. Even if they’re sitting right beside you.”
Just as it is when you’re sharing space or bodies with people, spending time with pets is all about figuring out what your pet needs to feel comfortable and safe. Once you do, you’ll feel confident that everyone can truly enjoy each others’ company and feel good, together.
Valli Parthasarathy, PhD, DVM, DACVB, veterinary behaviorist and owner of Synergy Behavior Solutions in Portland, Oregon