Last week, I discussed the developmental benefits of pet ownership/interaction for babies. Today, I’ll discuss the developmental benefits for toddlers when owning, caring for and interacting with the same list of pets.
Before you read about the benefits of pets for toddlers, be sure to check out the infographic that I referenced here to ensure that you make the right decision regarding if getting a family pet is right for your child and if so, which one is the best fit.
As children emerge from infancy to toddlerhood, they begin to develop their own independence. The child who used to need help with everything now wants to do everything himself, even though he doesn’t have the capacity to do it yet. If you’ve spent your child’s first year of life showing him how to take care of pets, by the time he reaches toddlerhood, he’s going to want to do it himself!
Here are some ways that you can include toddlers in the care of the family pet in a safe way for your child and for your pet.
Fresh water fish are relatively easy pets to care for. Aside from feeding the fish on a regular basis and cleaning the tank when needed, there isn’t much else to do besides look at the fish. Including your toddler in the feeding and cleaning responsibilities in an age appropriate manner can really help your child to develop skills in self-esteem, responsibility, independence.
When it is time to feed the fish, have your toddler help you. Follow these steps:
- Wash your hands together.
- Ask your toddler to help you to grab 1 pinch of food for the fish. Show him how to use his thumb and pointer finger to gather the food. Help him as needed, allowing plenty of time and patience to let him get it figured out. This is a very tough task for him developmentally, and he won’t learn it without practice, so let this be his time to practice.
- Once you’ve approved of the amount of food, remind your child that what he has in his fingers will be dropped into the fish bowl and remind him that he isn’t to stick his fingers in the water so that the fish doesn’t get any “owies.” Allow your child to drop the food into the fish bowl.
- Watch the fish eat the food and describe what you see happening.
- Wash your hands together again.
- Tell your child what an awesome job he did, specifically pointing out what he did well. For example, “Wow, you did such a great job trying to pick up the food. That was really hard for you but you kept trying so hard!”
When it is time to clean the fish tank, have your toddler help you in age appropriate ways. While it may not be sanitary for your child to touch the dirty fish water because your toddler is still learning how to differentiate between drinking water and dirty water, there are still plenty of tasks that your toddler can do like:
- Help gather the supplies for cleaning, such as the net, a bowl for the fish, a cup, some towels, etc.
- Be the fish tank cleaning assistant. “Can you hand me the net now?” or “Alright, now I need the cup. Can you find the cup for me?” or “We need to rinse out the tank. Step up here and turn on the cold water for me.”
- Once the items are cleaned, the toddler can help place the items back into the tank before the water is added.
Toddlers are incredibly strong and very determined in their actions, so it is important that any handling of the fish not involve toddler hands to ensure that the fish remains safe. When the child is older and more capable of managing his bodily actions, then he can have a more hands-on role with the fish.
Cats and Dogs
Dogs and cats come with a lot of responsibilities. Toddlers can help to take care of some of the responsibilities that come with caring for a dog and a cat. While I don’t recommend having children of any age handle animal waste, there are plenty of other sanitary tasks that toddlers can help with:
- Pick up toys and place them in a basket
- Pour food into bowl(s) with adult supervision and only when the adult has deemed this safe/appropriate for the family’s pet
- Play with the dog and/or cat by throwing a ball or toy
- Help to refill the water bowl
- Open the door to let the pet outside when appropriate, when asked
- Help to launder pet blankets, beds, etc.
Teaching children to use nice, gentle touches with dogs and cats is just as important in the toddler years as it was during the baby years. Remind toddlers to use gentle touches and discourage teasing or bothering of animals.
Also, if toddlers are helping with feeding of dogs, discuss the importance of staying away from animals while they eat. Say something like, “Now that Fido has his food, we’re going to stand back here so that we don’t scare him” and physically separate your toddler from the eating animal. (This is a lesson I learned the hard way as a child when I tried to grab food out of a dog’s bowl and got nipped in the ear by a dog that I loved very much and who never would have wanted to hurt me on purpose.)
Rodents and Small Animals
Toddlers can learn how to safely care for rodents and small animals in their cages as well. Kids Health suggests that rodents like hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, chinchillas, hedgehogs, prairie dogs, mice, and rats may not be safe for children, so keep that in mind when deciding whether or not to allow your child to touch and play with these small animals.
Toddlers can be a part of the feeding and care of these small animals, even without touching the animals. Toddlers can safely drop food like carrots, celery, lettuce and other human foods into the cage without being at risk of getting bit by the animal. Parents should supervise closely and show the toddler how to drop the food into the cage without letting fingers be at risk for biting.
While toddlers shouldn’t be responsible for reaching in to grab food bowls or water dispensers to be re-filled, they can easily be a part of the refilling process. Allow the child to help pour food into the bowl after the bowl has been safely removed from the cage or to help re-fill fresh water after the water dispenser has been safely removed from the cage by an adult.
When you put the food and water containers safely back into the cage, encourage the toddler to watch the animal’s reaction. Talk about what the animal does. You might say, “I think he’s happy that we gave him more food. He must have been hungry!” or “He went right to the water. He must have been thirsty!”
Place small animal cages in a location where the child can see and hear the animal, but ensure that the cage is out of reach of the toddler—for the child’s and animal’s safety. If you see your toddler engaging in “conversation” with or about the small animal, join your toddler to talk about what he sees and hears the animal doing in his cage.
Toddlers may be especially interested in birds as they can be very interactive pets. While a baby may babble with a chirping bird, a toddler may engage in a full-fledged conversation with a bird, as long as the bird is responsive to his comments!
If you hear your toddler talking with a bird, join the conversation. Say what you think your toddler is trying to say, and interpret what the bird might be saying. There’s no need to worry about accuracy here…you are simply facilitating a conversation and teaching language skills as you go. Encourage your child to pause and “listen” while the bird talks to help the toddler understand how respectful communication works.
“Talking” with a bird isn’t the only value that a toddler can get out of owning a pet bird. There are plenty of care responsibilities that toddlers can help with as well. Just like with rodents and small animals, parents should ensure that toddlers don’t touch the bird to ensure safety to the bird and the toddler alike.
But even though toddlers shouldn’t touch the bird, there are still plenty of things that the toddler can do to help:
- Collect safe items to make the cage more comfortable for the bird like sticks, leaves, grass and other outdoor items.
- Refill water and food dishes after they have been safely removed from the cage by an adult
- Put clean newspapers in the bottom of the cage
As you clean the cage with a toddler, talk about what you are doing and why you are doing it:
“Mommy has to take out the dirty newspaper because it gets stinky just like mommy changes your diaper when you get stinky. The bird likes it when the newspaper is clean and fresh, just like you like your new diaper.”
“We have to put more water in the bird’s bottle because it’s empty. He must be thirsty!”