Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Boy and dog © Nataha Kassulke

Dogs understand more than people may think and they can sense when significant change is occurring.
© Nataha Kassulke

February 2013

Creature Comforts

Kids and pets: compatible or catastrophe?

Johanna Schroeder

Welcoming a new pet into a home can be a wonderful experience. But it can also be stressful for a family and the pet. Especially if there are children involved. Too many furry, scaly, or feathered friends end up abandoned or surrendered due to lack of proper knowledge or research, leading to a sad ending to what started off as a joyous occasion. Taking some simple steps and doing your homework, though, can help prevent an unfortunate ending to welcoming a new pet (or child) into your home.

If you decide to adopt a pet from a shelter, be sure to ask lots of questions. I first adopted a pet from the humane society when my oldest daughter was 2 years old.

Most shelters are wonderful places to find a pet because the staff works closely with the animal and usually is aware of the animal's disposition, background and the situation it was in prior to arriving there. Staff also knows if the animal is not adoptable, preventing any possible injuries or harm to the owner or other individuals.

We saw many strays and surrendered animals when making our decision to adopt. The pets that had been surrendered had detailed descriptions of why the pet ended up there, any bad habits they had, and whether they were compatible with children or not. This information was extremely helpful.

We decided on a very sweet 6-month-old cat. But before we were able to take him home, we had to have two "meetings" with him. The meetings were intended to make sure that we were as suitable for him as he was for us. At both meetings, our daughter was present, and in the end the cat ended up coming home with us and was a very wonderful addition to our family, even as other kids started coming along.

I highly recommend the adoption process. But if you decide to buy a pet from a store or breeder, it's still important to ask questions and research the breed ahead of time. Is the pet you are looking at high energy, needs space to run or more frequent walking? Do you have space for a larger breed or would you be better off with a smaller breed? Are you looking at a more territorial animal that might lead to future behavior issues if they are not raised in the right environment for them? Is the breed compatible with children?

But what happens if you are introducing a new child to a pet that has already been established into the family? That situation poses a new set of challenges.

First, make sure the baby's things are separate from the area where your pet choosesto sleep, rest, eat and play. As strange as it may sound, talk to your pet about the baby, the baby's things and that there will soon be a new member joining the family. Dogs, for example, understand more than people may think and they certainly can sense when a significant change is occurring in the home.

Allow your pet to explore the baby's items, but watch to make sure "bad behaviors" do not start (for example, going to the bathroom where they shouldn't, aggression issues, etc.). And it is recommended that after the baby is born, when mom and the newborn are in the hospital, take a blanket or article of clothing home every day with you with the baby's scent on it and let your pet smell the item, explaining that the new arrival will be home soon.

As your children grow, it is important for parents to teach children how to properly approach and handle animals gently and respectfully. Encourage them to give your pet space when eating. Teach them gentle petting and touching techniques, or the signals a pet may display when "they have had enough." Teach them to not approach unknown animals without asking permission first or without an adult present. Most importantly, teach them to love and respect all creatures, whether inside or outside of their home.

Johanna Schroeder works in the Water Quality and Watershed Bureaus at Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. When not working, she keeps busy maintaining peace and harmony between her four kids and two cats, which is a fulltime job itself, but one she wouldn't trade for anything.