Having a pet to talk to and touch can be a great benefit to children in child care, especially shy youngsters. Children can learn responsibility by caring for a pet and may enjoy watching animals play and eat. Having a pet in your child care program takes thought and planning. Before you go out and buy a snake or a rabbit, be ready to ensure children are safe and healthy around the pet and the pet is treated gently and appropriately.
You also need to consider how children will react to pets in child care. Some children may be eager to interact with a pet, but others may be reluctant. Some children are scared of certain animals, such as dogs or snakes. The temperament of the animal also matters. Some animals are gentle and patient around children; others are frightened by noise or do not like to be touched. Before actually buying a class pet, consider having someone with a reliable pet come to visit with it. Prepare the children for the visit and see how they react to the pet. This may help you decide whether a full-time class pet is a good idea.
Remember that having a pet is a long-term commitment that does not end when the school year is over. If you are thinking of buying a pet for your child care program, think about who will take care of the pet on weekends, holidays and summer vacations. How will you ensure that the pet is healthy? Will the child care program pay for supplies and medical bills, or will you have to assume those responsibilities?
Risks of Pets in Child Care
Although having pets in child care offers many benefits for children, there can also be risks. Here are some of the most common risks to weigh before accepting pets into your child care program:
- Allergies. Some children may be allergic to pet dander. Remember to check with parents to identify any pet allergies before inviting animals into your child care setting.
- Germs. Furry animals — especially cats — may pick up and transport fungus spores in their coats. Children petting the cat may transfer these spores to themselves and others.
- Biting. Animals are living creatures, and their behavior can be unpredictable. Children may get bitten if a pet is mishandled. It may be a good idea to invite a local veterinarian to help teach the children how to care for pets before introducing a new pet into the child care setting.
Pets to Avoid in Group Child Care Settings
- Turtles can pass on salmonella, an intestinal infection, and are not recommended for child care settings.
- Birds of the parrot family (a budgie, parakeet or love-bird) can transmit an airborne respiratory illness to humans. Keep them away from rooms where children will play or sleep.
- Cats’ litter boxes may be a problem. Young children tend to put things in their mouths. Cat feces may contain parasites that can be transmitted to humans. If children touch anything that has come into contact with cat feces, they may become infected. Most infections are mild, but contact with cat feces by pregnant woman can cause birth defects through toxoplasmosis.
Introducing a Pet in Child Care
Be sure to prepare children before a pet comes to your child care program. Whether the pet is a visitor or a regular part of the classroom, ease them into meeting it for the first time. Talk with them about the animal and explain what it is and what it does. Show children how the animal likes to be held and touched. Let each child who is interested have a turn holding or petting it. Use positive guidance techniques such as, “Be gentle with the cat. The cat likes to be held like this. Squeezing hurts the cat.” Talk about how the animal might feel, even though younger children do not always understand how an animal or another person might feel.
Precautions for Having Pets in Child Care
With proper safety and hygiene, the benefits of pets far outweigh the risks in most cases, as long as you follow these simple precautions:
- Supervise children carefully around pets. Young children may enjoy the responsibility of helping care for pets, but still need careful supervision to handle the pet appropriately and avoid spreading germs. Be sure an adult is near children whenever they are handling or caring for pets. Set rules about when pets can be touched and enforce those rules carefully.
- Tell prospective parents about your pets at the interview. Parents will know if their child is allergic to animals or afraid of them. Work with parents to decide on a strategy for introducing reluctant children to pets.
- Wash hands after touching animals. Teach the children to wash their hands any time they touch animals as well. This is especially important before eating.
- Keep your pets clean. Because dogs and cats use their tongues to clean themselves, try to discourage pets from licking the children.
- Empty cat litter boxes daily. If you are pregnant, have someone else do this job.
- Cover sandboxes. Keep sandboxes covered when not in use to prevent cats from adopting them as litter boxes.
- Keep your pets healthy. Take pets to the veterinarian regularly for checkups. Keep animals free from internal and external parasites. Make sure pets receive all their shots, including distemper and rabies shots.
- Clean up after pets. Keep your yard free of animal feces. Dogs and cats with roundworm can give it to children if the children step in it and have a cut or sore on their feet.
For More Information
To learn more, check out the eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care section on Health and Safety in Child Care, or take a look at the resources of the Companion Animals eXtension Community of Practice.