It’s sad to say that animal abuse is a growing problem in the United States. One recent article said that in the economic downturn, more and more pets were being abandoned, and other statistics show that in times of economic stress, abuse of all kinds-pets, children, spouses, and elders-increases measurably. Rather like small children, pets thrive on affection, structure, and positive interaction, yet in too many circumstances, this isn’t what they’re getting at all.
When our kids get their hands on a puppy or Guarding a kitten, when the whining and begging starts (“pleeeease? I’ll take care of it, I’ll feed it and walk it, you won’t have to do anything…”), we do, of course, have to consider whether our family has the time and resources to give this small pet its best chance at a good, rewarding life. But before you groan at the prospect of vet bills and chewed-up slippers, think of all the things that our children can learn from taking care of pets. Being patiently taught how to care for a pet can foster the kind of empathy and responsibility in a child that can prevent animal abuse from happening in the future.
• Tell your children about animal abuse. Children have deeply good hearts; they will be appalled to hear how some people treat animals. Remind them that some people get bored with their pets and neglect them, or that they get angry and hurt them. Tell them that those actions are not acceptable, and that if you bring a pet into your home, it will not be treated like that-even when its caretakers get bored or angry.
• Remind your children that baby animals grow up. A cute, cuddly puppy or kitten will be a full-grown dog or cat in about a year. It will still be lovable and affectionate, but it won’t be tiny, and it won’t be as cute as it was when you couldn’t resist it. A commitment to a pet is a commitment for the pet’s entire life, not only when they’re small and cute, but also when they’re older. Getting tired of an older dog or cat is no excuse to neglect or mistreat it.
• Make it clear that the less pleasant duties will be shared by all. Yes, this means housebreaking duties. Small kittens still need to learn about the litter box, and puppies are notoriously prone to accidents. If a child isn’t willing to do the icky stuff like clean the litter box and pick up the accidents, they are not doing their duty by their pet. Remind them that they wore diapers when they were little, but animals don’t get to do that.
• Show them how their feelings are like the pet’s feelings. Even small children can understand the connections between their experience and their pet’s experience. How would your children feel if you simply “forgot” to make dinner one evening? Or if you kicked them out of the way instead of asking them politely to move? Or if you never had time to cuddle or play with them? The idea that their caregiver, the one who is supposed to love them best, would do any of those things is unthinkable, but they can grasp that they are the caregivers and love-givers to their pet, and should no more do those things to an animal than a parent would do them to a child.
Taking advantage of these simple teaching opportunities can develop empathy, kindness, and responsibility in children. The more children who develop these important qualities, the better chance we have of eradicating animal abuse for all generations.