Toddler Behavior: Help! How Can I Stop My Toddler from Hitting our Pets?!

Dear Dr. Heather, My 15 -month-old terrorizes animals. We have a small dog and a few cats, and any time the child sees one of them she goes running over with her arm cranked back to whack it. If she has anything in her hands she will use it as a club. If the animal is on the ground she will grab it by the back and try to crush it into the floor and sit on it. After this greeting she will say "gentle" and pet the animal nicely, evidently to make sure it appreciates the difference.

We don't smack her, we don't smack the pets, so why is she so violent? How do I get her to stop before she gets bitten? Luckily we have very complacent pets but I'm sure even the most patient animal will defend itself eventually.

Thanks for your advice, Christine

Hi Christine,

I know it's hard to see your baby so aggressive with animals. Now that your toddler is big enough to move around and check out her environment, she wants to feel, grab, and test everything out. We're all born with aggressive instincts; it comes from evolution and our animal roots. But she has no way to understand that aggressive handling of things will negatively affect them permanently. She can't yet understand that crushing the kitty will HURT it. (And she won't understand it yet, even if you explain it to her a million times.)

She's not yet cognitively able to understand the impact of her actions on others. She's just exploring, and using her own natural (and normal) aggressive instincts. But it's not really "violence", in the sense of really intending to hurt someone. So don't jump to conclusions about your toddler's personality or temperament. She's just doing the usual toddler thing. And she's clearly also trying out the "gentle" actions she has seen you model.

So, what to do? Your daughter is at what I consider to be the most difficult age of childhood; the 10-20 month window is when babies become toddlers, physically, but they haven't yet fully transitioned into their non-baby minds. So what you get is a big, mobile baby, not fully in control of her body, with all this pent up energy and interest in the world, and not a lot of coping strategies to manage the unavoidable frustration that comes along with it. My shoulders still tense up when I recall my own kids' passage through that very tricky time.

Johnny Depp said that having a toddler is like constantly being on suicide and homicide watch. You always have to be prepared to prevent your toddler from killing herself, or someone else. It's a dangerous time! All you can really do is provide as much safety and structure as possible -- and this usually means a 1-1 parent-kid ratio at all times, until she gets into a slightly more predictable (and manageable) stage.

But with all that parent-toddler time, you do have the opportunity to model good behavior, demonstrate how to touch others (including animals) appropriately, and generally navigate around the great big world. Many of your lessons won't bear fruit for quite some time, so pace yourself. But feel confident that eventually, your daughter and your kitties will be the best of friends!

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

BabyShrink's Feelings About Pet Loss

Rusty-Puppy was a sweet, happy dog who spent her life at Evans World Headquarters. She would rest her warm head on your knee as you sat at the table, peering up at you with those trusting brown eyes. She joyfully bounded around the yard with the kids. She was everything you could ever hope for in a family dog. But Rusty got old and sick. There were sparks of her old self, but her quality of life was miserable. Sharon and Danny agonized over when to end Rusty's suffering. They decided that yesterday was the day.

I spoke to Sharon yesterday after their appointment at the vet. "I bawled the whole time," she said. "She kept losing weight. She couldn't make it outside anymore on her own. Then I would see a little improvement. Was this the right time?"

Sharon also talked about the finality of death -- even with pets. "Somehow we take it for granted, if it's an animal. But it's just as final as if she was a person."

In the background, I could hear kids yelling and laughing. Sharon had taken the kids to their first soccer practice of the season. "We haven't told them yet. We told them it was coming; we tried to prepare them as best we could. But I couldn't imagine taking them home to tell them about Rusty, then having to sit there with them as they missed practice. Somehow, life has to go on. I think it may be harder on me than it will be on them."

Last night, I dreamt about Morey. Morey was a skinny red tabby; my first pet. After living through six cross-country moves in eight years, Morey gave me a sense of stability. She would sit in my lap, and I had a friend. I wasn't the "new kid in town" to Morey.toddler and cat

My Dad took her to get "fixed" one day. Late in the afternoon, we still hadn't heard back from the vet. I made him call. I was afraid, but I wasn't sure why. When my Dad hung up the phone, he threw his hands in the air and shrugged. "She died," he said. Then he went for a jog. I sat there and cried, trying to "pet" Morey's fur that was still stuck on my t-shirt.

I hate to tell those kinds of stories about my Dad, first of all because he died several years ago, and second, because he was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. But he was a doctor's doctor. His sensitivity to the emotional life of his kids left a lot to be desired.

Apparently, Morey had a reaction to the anesthesia. (Those of you who read my last post are putting two and two together right about now. Aha. Maybe THAT'S why she's doubly worried about the anesthesia.)

We quickly got two new cats, but they got left in Texas after we moved back to Hawaii. Then the cat I had my whole adult life died when I was finally pregnant with our first child (which was immediately after my Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer).

So, my reaction to pet loss is a little more complicated and neurotic, as a result. I wanted to have some pithy comments and suggestions to give Sharon yesterday. But the pit I felt in my stomach distracted me from rational thought.

Sharon and I talked about whether to introduce a new pet into the family, and when. Are there any ideal ages, in terms of the kids? And of course the burden of caring for an animal falls on the adults in the family. Do we really want that extra job, when we're running around after little kids? I told Sharon, "I can't do it again. It's too hard." But I understand that pets provide so much love to a family. I understand that important lessons about the cycle of life and death are beautifully demonstrated to children by owning and caring for pets.

So I'm sitting here, trying to put together some guidelines for how to cope with pet loss. And I can't come up with much, other than the fact that each kid is so different, and each developmental age is so different, that you have to individualize your reaction, based on those factors. Obviously, DON'T throw up your hands and go out for a jog. Let the kids set the pace, in terms of questions about the pet, and death in general. Lean on your family's spiritual tradition to help inform your answers about "what happens after death". When considering adding a new pet to the family, don't automatically jump in to that responsibility. You want to send the message to your kids that, although losing an animal is not the same as losing a person, we still must honor the place the pet held in our family, and that every life is unique.

In my last post, you had some incredible advice and suggestions. Now let me ask you: When IS the right time to add a new pet to the family, following the loss of a beloved animal?