Teaching Kids to Care for Dogs & Cats

boy caring and feeding cat Purina cat food

Pets are members of our families, and the bond we share with them is one we also want to nurture in our children.

Here are some things you can do now to help strengthen this bond, and give your child a sense of purpose by involving them in the care of a family pet.

Let Kids Play a Part in Pet Training and Games

Time at home creates an excellent opportunity to get older kids involved in training family pets.

According to Purina behaviorist Dr. Annie Valuska, “This can be a trick, like high-five or roll over, or something you’ve been meaning to work on, like getting your pet used to nail trims, their pet carrier, that new harness, the vacuum cleaner or finally conquering loose-leash walking.”

Just as with human friends, playing together brings kids and pets closer. Purina behaviorist Dr. Ragen McGowan suggests games to play with your dog or cat, such as hide and seek or the cup game, in which the pet has to find a treat hidden under one of three overturned cups.

Empowering kids to lead pets in these games creates an excellent development opportunity for everyone. “Once your pet and child figure it out on their own, you will see the ‘Eureka’ moment in action,” Dr. McGowan says, “with lots of tail-wagging, jumping around and excitement!”

Encourage Responsible Treating

When it comes to training and play, different pets need different types of encouragement. While treats are usually popular with pets (and kids enjoy giving them) it’s important to teach kids that for pets, too many treats each day can be unhealthy.

As an alternative to always handing out treats, encourage your child to discover other things that might motivate your pet. According to Dr. McGowan, it might be time with a specific toy, or social interaction, such as petting or praise.

Give Kids a Role in Pet Exercise

With families spending their days at home, taking breaks for exercise is essential for everyone’s mental and physical health. Purina behaviorist Dr. Sandra Lyn says this is a great opportunity to let older children take charge of some of the exercise for family pets.

This can be as simple as choosing the route for a family walk or run, or setting the time when it will take place. If a park is involved, be sure to confirm whether the facility is open.

Guide Kids to Create “Chill Time” for Pets

While exercise and regular activity are important to our health, quiet time for napping and relaxing is also essential—for pets as well as people. While pets love spending time with family, the change of having family around all the time can be stressful.

This is a chance to help your children understand the importance of this quiet time, and to involve them in developing a routine that incorporates it. For cat families, an additional project for kids, suggested by Purina behavior scientist Dr. Vicky Tu, is to create safe hiding spots for cats.

Another way for kids to create quiet, yet connected, time with pets is by reading to them. According to Dr. Lyn, “Kids still need to learn and pets have been shown to help children in some areas of learning (e.g., reading).”

It’s Never Too Early to Learn Responsible Pet Care

Extended time at home offers opportunities for family members to grow. Giving kids more responsibility for pet care can further enrich the life of your family pet—and help your child become a better pet owner in the process.