Children are naturally interested in interacting with—and getting a reaction from—the family pet. It’s not uncommon for them to hide food, play a little too rough, play dress up with the pet or put makeup and hair products on her. In these situations, parental guidance is needed, as a pet may feel uncomfortable or suffer harm if dangerous substances are ingested.
More serious, however, is when a child intends to hurt an animal. Whether the cause is peer pressure or a cry for help, true malicious animal cruelty is not a behavior that children outgrow by themselves. Professional intervention may be needed to prevent behavior problems that can stay with a child into adulthood, and even be acted out on other human beings.
The following behaviors may indicate that intervention is needed to guide your child away from cruel behaviors toward animals:
- Chasing a fleeing pet
- Locking a pet in a closet
- Leaving a pet outdoors
- Knowingly or unknowingly feeding a pet harmful human food.
- Feeding human medications that are dangerous to pets to see what effect the pills will have
- Placing a tight rubber band around a paw
- Painting a pet’s body
- Putting a small animal in a washing machine, microwave or other appliance
- Staging fights between dogs or letting one animal chase another
- Deriving pleasure from seeing a frightened or suffering pet
- Responding to adult reprimands by engaging in secretive, hostile acts toward the pet
- Burning an animal
- Teasing an animal with firecrackers
- Repeatedly showing off the inhumane handling of a pet to others
- Putting an animal in dangerous situations, such as dangling her outside a window or bringing her into the road
If you discover your child repeatedly putting an animal into dangerous situations, act swiftly to teach him/her that these behaviors are not acceptable. The following guidelines may help:
- Do not ignore or dismiss pet-unfriendly actions. Most children, when dealt with as though they’ve committed a serious offense, will think twice before repeating the behavior.
- Use the same serious tone of voice that you would use if you saw your child running across the street without stopping to look for oncoming traffic.
- A simple, clear statement such as, “We do not hurt animals” is far more effective than lecturing.
- If your child persists in hitting, kicking, pinching or teasing your pet in spite of your repeated corrections, consult with your pediatrician or an expert in child development.
- You set the example. Never hit, shake, jerk or yell at your family pet—your child may imitate you and go too far.
- If you overreact in anger toward your pet, show your child that it’s all right to apologize to the pet, just as you would apologize to a person.
- If your teenager involves the family dog in high-risk activities such as dog fighting, not only should you intervene, but check in to see if your child is being influenced by alcohol, drugs, gambling or other unhealthy behaviors that involve peer pressure.
Remember that for most children, learning empathy and respect toward animals is part of the normal socialization process. These values are instilled the same way as learning not to hit friends or tease mercilessly.