Raising Children in the Company of Animals


As far back as I can remember, I have spent every moment of my life surrounded by various animals—dogs, cats, rabbits, snakes, turtles, mice, and the occasional Cecropia Moth hatching from a cocoon hidden in a sock drawer. My parents were always tolerant of my bringing home sick, injured, lost, or unwanted animals, so that we could provide them the help they needed, and from that I learned so much about life. I learned to love, respect, and nurture those who needed it, and learned to respect their boundaries. I also learned about responsibility, illness, life, and death.

Those lessons from my childhood have helped to shape me into the adult I am today, even helping me select a career as a Veterinary Technician. Now that I’m a mom myself, I love that our 3-year-old daughter, Mathilda, is growing up with the same experiences that I had as a kid. As a result, she is a gentle, nurturing child who takes pride in helping out with the daily care required for our 12 cats, 2 large dogs, and turtle, all of whom were rescued. Now retired from my career as a vet tech, I still volunteer my time bottle feeding orphaned animals for a local rescue, and Mathilda is always by my side, watching and learning how to be kind and gentle to those in need of a little TLC.

How do you know when to let your child help out with the responsibilities needed to care for animals in your home?

Every child is different; it depends on where they are developmentally. It also depends on the demeanor of each individual animal, so choose tasks accordingly. When our daughter was just a baby, we always taught her to be gentle with the animals in our home, and when she started crawling around, grabbing onto everything, I took the opportunity to start teaching her simple things that set the foundation for responsibility later in life. Because she was curious, I’d hand her a piece of kibble to toss into the bowl so that she could help feed the animals. As she got a little older, I’d let her take the food scoop and pour the kibble into the bowl by herself, even if half of it ended up on the floor. Whatever didn’t make it into the bowl she’d eagerly pick up and toss into the dish as I counted the number of pieces aloud. When she was around two and a half, I let her do the scooping and pouring, and now that she’s three, I let her hand me the bowls to be filled and then set them back in place for the dogs. After the dogs have eaten, she hands me the empty dishes.

Mathilda is also “in charge” of giving out treats, turning on the special light for Myrtle the turtle, and giving Myrtle her turtle food. She loves to help hold the waste bag open as I scoop the litter boxes. If one of the animals makes a mess or tracks in dirt, she is the first one to alert me in her proud, little voice that we need to get a rag and the cleaning spray bottle. As she gets older, Mathilda will get to help bathe the dogs, scoop the litter boxes, brush the kitties, help me bake vegan dog cookies, and create fun cat toys. None of this should ever be forced, of course.

Your child will want to help you if you give them the opportunity to do so. Always praise them for helping you, even if they make a mess in the process because children learn so much from these experiences and grow as a person from them. As your child matures, see what they are capable of helping with or what they’re interested in. This is an amazing opportunity for you to bond with your child over something that you both love, and over what would otherwise be a boring task without their help, and you’ll also be teaching them about responsibility involved with caring for another living being. It’s also an important time to teach your child about respecting the boundaries of animals, that it’s not ok to tease, poke, or annoy the animal, especially when the animal is eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, or playing with a toy. Young children should never be left unattended with any animal for reasons too numerous and obvious to mention. Always use common sense when giving your child a new responsibility. For example, if your dog is food aggressive, avoid food-related tasks and focus on something else the child can safely do instead, like retrieving lost kitty/dog toys from under furniture or getting leashes ready for a walk.

What’s the best way to deal with health and end of life issues?

Every time you bring another living being into your life, you also take responsibility for their health. Animals’ lifespans are much shorter than ours, so take that into consideration. If an animal falls ill or becomes injured, your child is going to take notice of this and have questions. That’s normal and should be encouraged. It’s always best to be as open and honest as possible in a way that your child can understand. When an animal has come to the end of his or her life, avoid telling a child is that you are going to put the animal to “sleep.” Kids are very literal, so using the word “sleep” could really confuse them and cause issues. Instead, use the correct term, “euthanasia” or “euthanize” to reduce confusion. It’s up to you if you want your child present for that procedure. Most veterinarians recommend waiting to have children present until they are around five years old, but it really depends on each individual child and their maturity level.

What if you don’t have companion animals in your life? Adopt or rescue an animal in need from your local shelter!

Not everyone can share their homes with an animal because of allergies, rental restrictions, traveling or moving often for work, or other reasons, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have your child benefit from all of the life experiences that come from being around them. There are so many ways to get involved. Here are a few examples:
• Shelters and rescues are always in need of supplies like food, litter, towels, toys, blankets, paper towels and cleaners. Help your child host a supply drive at school for a local animal shelter or rescue. It’s such a fun, rewarding experience for the kids to see what their hard work accomplishes, and it shows them the value of a community pulling together to help out those who need it most.
• Have a garage sale or a vegan bake sale and donate all of the proceeds to a local animal shelter or rescue. Your child can help you tag merchandise, make signs, or bake vegan treats to sell. When you deliver the money to the shelter, your child can meet who they are helping. Be sure to save some vegan treats to share with the people who dedicate their time working there! They will really appreciate it.
• Visit an elderly friend or relative and offer to scoop the cat box or clean up after their dog, wash out feeding bowls, wash soiled animal bedding, go to the store to buy heavy bags of food or litter and deliver it to their home, spend time playing with their animals, or offer to drive their animal to a veterinary appointment.
• Older children can volunteer to walk dogs and help socialize kitties at a local shelter. The possibilities to lend a helping hand are limitless. Check with local shelters to see what help they need or what volunteer programs they offer. Many animal hospitals also offer weekend or summer volunteer programs for older kids and teens. Kids love the hands-on experience and get to check out cool stuff under the microscope.

Raising your children in the company of animals is a win-win situation for everyone: kids learn to love, respect, and take pride in their positive actions, you as a parent will know that you are helping your child to grow up to become a responsible, compassionate adult. Plus, many happy memories will be made by all involved, especially the animals!

Posted in Family Life

Kristin Konrady lives in Chicago, Illinois with her husband Patrick, their daughter Mathilda, and a menagerie of rescued animals. She enjoys renovating their 128-year-old Victorian house, creating delicious vegan foods, and serving on Chicago VeganMania‘s Board of Directors.