How to Introduce a New Pet To Your Kids, According to a Veterinarian

published Nov 16, 2022
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gray tortoiseshell kitten on windowsill with scratching post/cat tree in view
Credit: Mariusz Wos/Getty Images

Welcoming a new pet is a major milestone for a family. After enjoying a one-cat household for the past 6 years, my family of four recently decided to adopt a kitten. For weeks, it was all my 10- and 4-year-old could talk about. We found a foster pet parent who was open to us visiting before the kittens were available for adoption, and we quickly found the one that we wanted to call our own. Once she was old enough to spay, we picked her up and brought her home to live with us.

I’ve noticed, in the weeks that have followed bringing home our new kitten, Ori, the ways in which doing so has been a lot like bringing home a second child. There were big feelings to sort through, boundaries to establish, and lots of love to share. I chatted with the veterinarians at Chewy to come up with some best practices for introducing a new cat or dog to a home with children, including recommendations for products to make the transition as smooth as possible. Here are the takeaways.

Credit: Lindsey Stewart

Establish a Foundation

Introduce the idea of bringing home your new critter with as much advance notice as you can give. Set aside time to discuss the issue as a family, either at a family meeting if you have them or maybe around the dinner table. You want to choose a time when your kids are able to ask questions and listen.

Start by asking questions about what your kids’ expectations are. Often, depending on their age, their ideas may be informed by tv and movies, what they see at their friends’ houses, and any experience they may have with an existing pet. Share your own experiences or videos pertaining to pet care on YouTube (watch them before sharing with kids to make sure they align with your own values) to give kids some context. 

“Make sure to talk to your child about how to interact with their new furry family member,” says Dr. Tiffany Tupler, veterinarian at Chewy. “This means being gentle, not pulling, avoiding whiskers and tails, and leaving them alone when they’re eating or sleeping,” 

Check out books from the library about pets. Depending on your kids’ ages, these could be simple picture books or more detailed books about caring for pets. A few of my favorites include:

Credit: Purple Collar Pet Photography/Getty Images

Set Boundaries

“Never leave a child under six alone with a pet,” Dr. Tupler advises. “Teach your child how to have a hands-off approach at first, rather than forcing your dog or cat to interact with the kids.”

Your pet will need space to explore, with enough room for their food, toys, and a litterbox for a cat or a crate for a dog. Make a plan that includes time for play and time for rest for your pet, and re-evaluate it each week as your cat or dog grows. 

“It’s important to allow your pet the freedom to meet his or her new family member at their own pace,” says Tupler. “While maintaining supervision, let them sniff and coexist in the same space.” When in doubt, go slow. Start with a few minutes at first and then gradually work your way up. If either the child or the pet seems uncomfortable, try to end on a positive note (with a treat) and wrap up the interaction until everyone has time to get calm again.

Create Safe Space

In addition to meeting your children, a new cat or dog may also be meeting your other pets. Dr. Tupler says the key to success here is patience. She recommends 3 to 5 introduction sessions per day, for about 10 minutes each. Tupler says it’s important to learn about pet body language to keep your pets safe when they are first meeting each other. 

When it comes to cats, Tupler suggests keeping them apart at first and then using scent exchange to introduce them to each other. “You can do this by rubbing a towel or blanket on the side of their face, then placing it on the floor and sprinkling it with treats for the other cat to explore. Introducing a scratcher or cat tree is also key, as scratching releases pheromones.”

For dogs, Tupler recommends a distance test, as well as using a leash and collar, and potentially a muzzle to protect smaller animals. “During their first introduction, you should monitor the body language of your pup,” says Tupler. “Look out for the following signs of distress: forward leaning, intense staring, low growling, tense body and ears being pinned back may all be signs that the introduction may not go as planned. If these are noted, it’s recommended to bring in a professional behavioral therapist or consult your veterinarian to ensure safety and proper introductions.”

Get the Essentials in Place 

As you get closer to bringing home your pet, involve your kids as much as their age allows in the preparation. Show them where your animal will sleep, eat, and toilet. Get them involved in brainstorming a name or picking out toys or treats. If your child is old enough to help with feeding and walking, set up a plan for what that might look like, and be prepared to revisit the plan as you go to make sure it’s still serving your family and your new pet well.

A Veterinarian’s Must-Have Products When Introducing a New Pet

  • Crate (for dogs): This should be a happy and welcoming place for your pooch and never used to for punishment
  • Pet gate: To create separate spaces for your new pet
  • Cave bed (for cats): Creates a calming, safe space for cats
  • Leash: A martingale collar with a 6 foot leash works best
  • Toys for cats and dogs: Having toys on hand create a positive and fun environment when meeting a new brother or sister
  • Snuffle mats: To help with pheromones and stress reduction
  • Towels: For scent exchanges
  • Feliway, different types of litter and litter boxes for a substrate and litter box trial, cat trees, scratchers, catnip, leash and harness for walks, and churu (high value snacks for introductions)

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