Letting children, especially young children, and pets, especially new ones, play can be a little nerve-wracking. The foremost worry is for the safety of the children, of course — it's more likely that an animal would physically hurt a child than the other way around. Unfortunately, kids can hurt pets too, and what's more, they can antagonize a pet to the point the animal will act out.
This is mostly due to two factors. First, children are still growing, learning, and testing boundaries, coupled with still learning how to verbalize their thoughts and needs. Second, pets can't verbalize at all, making it more difficult for them to communicate when they don't like something, want certain behaviors to stop, or are hurting. As a parent, you need to step in and fill this fundamental gap and help them understand each other.
Keep in mind that some animals simply aren't comfortable around children, and that's okay. When adopting a new pet, especially if it's older, make sure to talk to the shelter or rescue organization staff to make sure the animal is safe to live with kids. Similarly, if you already have kids and kid-friendly pets but are ready to adopt a new pet, make sure to ask if the animal is also comfortable with other animals. Bringing a pet into a home where it's uncomfortable will only make them more and more stressed, and thus more likely to hurt someone.
Sometimes, your children may not be comfortable around certain animals or new pets. While it's important to help your child overcome certain fears in order to become comfortable with new experiences, it's important to remember that sometimes forcing a child to interact with an animal is not okay. Only you as the parent can make that determination, and some things go without saying, like you shouldn't buy a pet tarantula for a kid with arachnophobia.
Kids are also likely to lash out at an animal when they're afraid. Whether it's crying, screaming, or something physical such as pushing or hitting. These reactions can create a bad atmosphere for the pet and since the pet is unable to understand, it can create a cycle of tension that will inevitably lead to the animal defending itself.
Pets, especially young cats or dogs, can go through behavior training that will help them to be comfortable around children. Once they've been trained, you can intercede with appropriate commands for the pet as well as the child. Sometimes, even pets that don't like kids can be trained to interact safely. This is great especially if there is a child that doesn't live with you, but visits often or for long periods of time. When looking for a training professional, be sure to ask your veterinarian, as they can make some great suggestions!
Of course, your pets are not the only ones who need training. Kids need training too! Young children are still learning the right way to behave around animals as well as the boundaries between "nice and playful" and "mean and hurtful." Without being taught, kids won't understand that even though they think pulling on a pet's ears is funny, that doesn't mean that the pet likes it, which makes it a bad thing to do. Additionally, there are things about different breeds that need to be taught, such as certain pets, like rabbits or gerbils, require special handling, hands need to be washed after interacting with reptiles, and fish tank windows are not be tapped on. It is also important to teach kids when to leave their pets alone, such as when they're eating, sleeping, or defecating.
Below are more tips for keeping pets and kids happy and comfortable while they play:
Always make sure interactions are supervised, either by you or by someone who understands the importance of child-animal safety. This will enable you to intervene and redirect any poor behavior.
Keep initial introductions between the child and the pet calm and with you in control. This will influence their behavior and enable a pleasant first interaction.
Train animals like cats and dogs to not jump on new arrivals, especially children.
Use treats to reinforce positive associations and good behavior. This can be particularly effective with cats.
Don't allow any roughhousing, especially if the pet and the child are still adjusting to each other. It can be hard to know if the pet is becoming anxious or if the child is going too far. It can also be hard to ensure your pet won't get too rough during play.
Similarly, don't let your child attempt to ride or lift large pets.
Learn the signs of anxiety and agitation in your pet (e.g., panting without exercise, growling, bared teeth, defensive postures) so you can tell when to separate your child from the animal.
Remember that any pet can act out and harm a child through scratching and biting.
Find ways to prevent pet toys and children's toys from becoming confused in order to avoid territorialism.
Make sure your pet has a safe space to retreat to away from children, such as a dog crate or an elevated cat bed, as being cornered or trapped will make an already anxious pet afraid and more likely to lash out.
Teach your child the appropriate way to approach animals, and to never try to approach or touch any animal that does not belong to your family.