Bringing a new dog or cat home to join your family is an exciting event, especially for small children. Kids are usually ready to jump right in and shower their new furry friend with love and attention. However, transitions like these can be pretty stressful for most animals, making children’s eagerness a bit scary for them.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, children are the most common victims of injuries like dog bites. Also, their wounds are often more severe than they would be for adults. These incidents usually happen during everyday interactions, especially when parents leave their kids alone with new pets.
Why Pets Sometimes Suddenly Lash Out
Your children will likely want to hold, kiss, and play with their new furry friend for hours on end. However, just like humans, pets need a bit of space when they feel tired, stressed, or sick. If your pet feels cornered, threatened, or just wants to be left alone, they may react by growling, scratching, or biting.
Though most cats and dogs nip, bite and swat things when they play, they will usually display warning behaviors like growling or hissing before an attack. Even so, we often overlook or misinterpret these signs and assume our pets are simply play-fighting. What’s more, a frightened, stressed or sick animal might suddenly become aggressive when they want to get away and feel safe.
Fortunately, there are a few simple things you can do to channel your children’s excitement into something more helpful to their new furry friend. One idea is to set up a safe space just for your pet before their arrival. Your children can help pick out what goes in the room, and it will give nervous animals a spot to get away if they are overwhelmed or scared.
Helping Fearful Pets Cope Using Safe Spaces
Creating a quiet, comfortable space for fearful or anxious pets helps alleviate tension. Without the ability to soothe themselves and cope with stressful triggers, animals often engage in destructive behaviors that put their health and safety at risk (as well as kids’) and take a toll on your furniture and belongings.
What is a Safe Space?
When facing a stressful situation, most people seek out a quiet place to be alone and take time to calm down. Dogs and cats want the same thing. Giving them choices, like moving voluntarily to a safe zone to decrease stress, helps modify behavior. A bed in a quiet corner, a cozy crate in the mudroom, a space on your bed, or a designated pet room can all work as safe havens for your dog.
Choosing the Right Space for Spot
Where you place your safe spot largely depends on the size of your house, its layout, and the location of high-traffic areas. Observing your dog or cat to see where they go when stressed can also help you choose. Enlist your kids to play detective and practice watching their new friend from a distance.
Quiet places away from the hustle and bustle of the household are ideal. Consider mudrooms, large closets, an out-of-the-way corner of the den, a nook under the stairs, or a spare room. You can also use crates or gates to give your pet a place to get away from it all.
Draping a crate with a blanket or cover mimics the dark cozy feel of a den, which is comforting for canines. Similarly, cats often enjoy small, enclosed spaces like cabinets and cubbies or prefer to be high up and hidden in a cat tree where they can see better.
Both crates and gates work two ways; they allow your pet to have a comfortable space in any room you choose while signaling to kids and others in your household that your dog or cat needs some alone time. They also work great for confining your pet during home renovations and repairs or when you have allergic guests visiting.
If your pet’s safe space is part of a larger room, you’ll need to make sure they can’t get hurt or cause damage when left alone. Pups and kitties with separation anxiety often chew anything within reach or dig frantically at doors, which can lead to broken teeth or injured paws. Just like you would for kids, pet-proofing is an essential part of minimizing risks.
The following tips can help you remove or relocate items so you can keep your pet safe from harm:
- Animal’s Eye View – Sit on the floor and look at the room from your pet’s perspective. That remote on the coffee table is easily within reach, and it has your scent, making it even more enticing. Your pup or kitty could chew or eat any items within range, resulting in an emergency visit to the vet.
- Next Level – If your cat likes to jump onto chairs, sofas, coffee tables, or beds, scrutinize each area for potential hazards. Shelves full of books or breakables, lamps on tables, window blinds, and toxic houseplants could all be within reach once your kitty leaps onto the couch or other furniture.
- Cords and Fire Hazards – Make sure all electrical cords and wires are safe and secure. Avoid placing your pet’s bed or crate in front of power outlets or near fireplaces and heaters. Don’t accidentally block vents with blankets or cushions, either.
- Medications – Your pet’s safe haven is a drug-free zone. Human medicine and supplements left on a coffee table or nightstand could be fatal for your furry friend.
What to Include in a Pet-Friendly Safe Space
Whether you’re going all-in on the ultimate pet room complete with animal artwork and pet couches or creating one or two small retreats in the house, there are a few things you’ll need for your pet’s safe haven:
- A Comfortable Bed – Whether it’s a bed, a blanket-covered seat on the couch, or a mat inside a crate, your dog or cat will need a comfortable place to rest. Pay close attention to the dimensions of your pet’s bed to make sure they can stretch out or curl up however they like. Your child can help by picking the color and making sure it feels soft enough.
- The Perfect Temperature – A safe spot should be at a comfortable temperature from the depths of winter to the height of summer, so the space stays stress-free and cozy for your furry friend.
- Your Signature Scent – If your pet experiences separation anxiety, including an unwashed item of your clothing in their safe space, can have a reassuring effect. Studies have shown that dogs, in particular, have a strong, positive reaction to their owner’s scent, which can help keep them calm. Have your kids choose an old t-shirt that their new friend can cuddle with to get better acquainted with their scent.
- Access to Food and Water – If you’re using a crate, a separate pet room, or a gated area, ensure your furry friend can get food and water when they need it. Feeding your pet in their safe haven strengthens positive associations with the space and provides a safe, quiet place for mealtimes.
- Smart Speakers or a Radio – Research on the effects of music has shown that gentle sounds, especially soft rock, reggae, and classical, decrease animal stress. Make sure you mix up your playlists; listening to the same tunes every day will reduce the calming effect over time. If your pet is fearful of thunder or fireworks, a fan or a white noise machine can also help block loud distressing sounds.
- Favorite Toys – Familiar things, like specific blankets, toys, and treats, help your pets feel safe and relaxed. Enrichment items, like puzzle food bowls and toys that deliver treats via play, can also keep anxious pups or kittens occupied when you’re out of the house.
Encouraging Your Pet to Use Their Safe Zone
The critical thing to remember is that your new pet room is for comfort and safety—not for time-outs or punishment. Dogs and cats should always have positive associations with their retreat. Feeding your pet in that space, offering treats, and giving gentle praise when they choose to go to their safe haven to keep calm or relax encourages your new pet to visit when things get stressful.