How to Teach Kids to Interact With Pets

Janelle Leeson
By Janelle Leeson. Reviewed by Barri J. Morrison, DVM on Aug. 3, 2023
A young girl and her dog play tug-of-war.

Introducing a family-friendly pet to your household is like adding sprinkles to ice cream. They’re the cherry on top of childhood memories. However, while kids and pets are a classic combination, interacting with pets doesn’t always come naturally to little ones.

Adult supervision is essential when it comes to caring for pets, even if kids believe they’re mature enough to handle the responsibility on their own. This rule applies to all kinds of animals, whether they are cats, pups, rabbits, guinea pigs, or any other beloved family pet.

“Not only does such supervision protect humans from potential bites, but it also ensures much less stress for the animals and reduces the risk of them being unfairly labeled as bad pets,” says Jennifer Malawey, certified professional dog trainer and owner of Gentle Beast.

To ensure the safety of your children and create lasting memories with their new furry companion, we’ve compiled a set of crucial tips for teaching kids how to interact safely with pets.

Key Takeaways

  • Establish a “pet voice” for the child to use when interacting with a pet for the first time.
  • Always teach children to respect a pet’s boundaries, and to know when a pet doesn’t want to be touched or played with.
  • Be clear in how to interact with pets–examples of what to do and say will go a long way when it comes to teaching.

Introducing Kids and Pets

If you already have a young child in your household and are considering adding a furry family member to the pack or clowder, our experts recommend following these tips. Always remember that these interactions should be conducted under the watchful eye of an adult. Naturally, your approach might vary slightly, as it should be personalized to suit the needs of your individual child and pets.

Get To Know Your Pet

Before introducing your child to your pet, get to know your new furry family member, advises Dr. Rachel Geller, a certified cat behavior and retention specialist and founder of All Cats All the Time, Inc. “Observe how they respond to sudden movements and noise, and take note of their preferred areas to be petted and any sensitive spots to avoid,” she says.

“Always practice positive interactions with your pet, as kids tend to emulate the behaviors they witness from trusted adults."

Pet Talk

Before your child meets their new pet, collaborate to create a “pet voice”. According to Dr. Geller, this should be a soft, soothing tone for you and your kids to use when interacting with your pets. This will be especially important during the first few interactions with your family’s new furry friend.

“Think of a sing-song voice,” says Dr. Geller. “Kids, especially young ones, tend to be loud and may not be aware of their volume and tone.”

This is also a good time to remind your little one that pets dislike having their ears, fur, or tail pulled, and that small animals, such as kittens, rabbits, and guinea pigs, should always be held with two hands rather than one to ensure their safety and comfort.

Learning Consent

To teach your child about consent, start by placing your new furry family member in a safe and secure room. Encourage your child to spend time with the pet there. When entering the room, calmly greet your pet with your “pet voice” and encourage your child to do the same. Begin with short visits and gradually increase the time spent together.

Remember to only pet your pup or cat when they show signs of acceptance. “Teach your child not to reach for the cat or make the first move, and to sit on the floor rather than stand up so they are not towering over the cat,” Dr. Geller says.

If your dog or cat indicates that they’re not interested in interacting by not approaching, Malawey advises teaching your children to respect the pet’s boundaries and not force interactions.

Taking Responsibility

Beyond learning how to care for another living being, helping with daily care builds trust between pets and humans and fosters a strong bond between them. Even better, Dr. Geller suggests practicing pet responsibilities at the same time each day. As she points out, “Cats love routine and predictability,” to make them feel secure and content. Many dogs also thrive with such schedules.

If your child is too young to handle tasks like scooping the litter box or taking their pup for potty breaks, you can involve them in simpler responsibilities such as filling the food bowl or water dish. This is an excellent opportunity to have discussions about boundaries, such as not petting animals while they’re eating, drinking, sleeping, or “doing their business.”

Petting Dogs and Cats

When it comes to petting animals, it’s essential to demonstrate gentle strokes rather than patting, moving your hand in the same direction as your pet’s fur (head to tail). It is also a good idea to let the pet smell your child’s hand first before moving on to petting them. This lets the pet get familiar with the smells they will be exposed to. Use this opportunity to explain to your child that just like they wouldn’t appreciate having their ears and hair pulled, the family pet feels the same way.

Cats tend to enjoy being petted on their back, shoulder, neck, and head, while areas such as the belly, paws, and tail should be respected as off-limits. On the other hand, dogs often appreciate being petted on their back and chest. Once they feel comfortable and at ease, they may also enjoy ear scratches and belly rubs.

Providing clear examples of how to recognize when a pet enjoys being petted, and when they need some space can be really helpful to your kids. A few examples of interactions you could share are:

  • Purring is a sign of happiness but can also be a sign of fear or stress.
    • It can sometimes be differentiated if the cat’s tail is swishing back and forth that is often stress or fear. If they are content otherwise without any change in body movements, its likely a happy purr. 
  • If my cat’s tail is swishing back and forth really fast, I should find another activity and leave the kitty alone.
  • When my dog leans into me or nudges my hand, it’s okay to pet them.

Playing With Pets

Interactive play with pets builds trust and strengthens bonds. But first, you’ll need to set some ground rules and gather a few toys.

Discourage Roughhousing

Playing rough, such as jumping from the couch, running through the house, and throwing toys, can evoke various responses from pets, ranging from fear to over-excitement. To address this, consider designating a playroom with a gate or door that restricts pet access that allows for confined, rough, or loud play.

Likewise, if your child likes to play rough, set clear boundaries for pet-appropriate games and toys.

“Teach them not to use their fingers or hands as cat toys,” Dr. Geller says. “This practice teaches a cat that it’s okay to use their claws and teeth on hands (or any flesh), which could inadvertently hurt your child.”

Stock up on Toys

To avoid any potential issues, it’s essential to have an ample supply of toys for your pets. Mistaking a favorite doll for a chew toy can quickly sour a relationship between your child and their furry friend. When your pup has their own chew toys and your cat has plenty of cat trees and scratchers, they’re less likely to use family belongings as substitutes.

Playing Together

To show your children how to interact with pets safely and avoid potential risks, involve them in interactive play. For example, when you play with your cat using a fishing pole toy, have your child hold the wand with you, suggests Dr. Geller. This ensures their fingers remain at a safe distance while they learn how to interact with the cat in a way that the cat enjoys.

Playing fetch is always enjoyable for both kids and pups and provides an excellent opportunity to teach your dog important manners, like “drop it.” Transforming playtime into a game of hide-and-seek by hiding treats in the yard or around the house can be an exciting way for your child and dog to bond while stimulating the dog’s natural instincts to sniff and search.

Teaching children to interact respectfully with pets and enjoy interactive play will create a harmonious and joyful relationship with the child’s furry companions. These positive experiences and early bonds set the stage for a lasting and meaningful connection that brings years of happiness and companionship.

Featured Image:

Janelle Leeson


Janelle Leeson

Freelance Writer

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