Many North Americans share their homes with pets. As of 2016, there are 8.8 million cats and 7.6 million dogs, considered household pets across Canada. Meanwhile, as of 2017, a total of 89.7 million dogs and 94.2 million cats are estimated to live in American households as pets. Many of these households also have children, who grow up and build relationships with these companions. Having a family dog, cat, bunny, or other animal is a great way for children to learn about compassion, companionship and the responsibility of caring for an animal. These animals become members of the family and receive similar affection. Children can learn how to treat animals through their experiences and so it’s important that they are taught to extend kindness to those that are different in species and vulnerable to harm.
The way that children perceive animals at a young age can set a precedent for their relationships in adulthood. It is important that children learn that animals are live beings to be respected and that it is our moral duty to cause them and their habitats no harm. Children are reactive, in that they do as they see. If a child sees an animal being mistreated, they are more likely to process this as normal and acceptable behaviour. Instilling good values in kids to be gentle with animals can stop the cycle of animal cruelty from occurring in the first place.
Children naturally identify with animals and so through affirmative interactions with pets, we can also teach our kids how to behave towards other people. Positive relationships with animals can encourage caring, humane and law-abiding adults. Evidence shows that a child’s attitude toward animals is a predictor of future behaviour. FBI profilers, psychiatric professionals, law-enforcement, and child advocacy organizations recognize that people who cause harm to animals may eventually direct that violence towards other people. Causing harm to animals is considered one of three symptoms that predict the development of a psychopath. It is also included as a criterion for a conduct disorder in children by the American Psychiatric Association. It has been proved that individuals capable of inflicting harm to animals have an underdeveloped sense of empathy. Therefore, teaching children about respect for animals is critical at an early age so they can develop empathy for others.
Proactive ways to get your kids engaged with animals can include taking them to the local animal shelter, where you can volunteer with your child and help homeless animals. It can also be important to visit an animal sanctuary where your child can get up close with animals and learn about how they can be rehabilitated or cared for. You can also watch animal-friendly movies and read books that have animal characters who are feeling individuals. When your child interacts with familiar or new pets, make sure to remind them to ask if they can play with the animal, not to pull on their tails, not to chase, and learn to observe animal behaviours. Lastly, during festivities such as Halloween, you can teach your children to be careful around animals, not share their treats, and that black cats can make adorable pets!