Girl and dog

The only thing as joyous and rewarding as raising our own children is getting to share the experience all over again as grandparents. My wife and I raised two wonderful people we’d be proud to know even if they weren’t our children, and we’re now busy loving and, yes, spoiling our one and only grandchild.

And while there are many important elements to raising children to be happy, thoughtful, responsible adults, as a veterinarian and lifelong animal lover, I think one of the most important things you can do for your children or grandchildren (or, really, any child you know!) is nurture a love of animals.

I have long noticed that people who love our furry and feathered companions are generally happier and healthier than people who profess to “hate” animals. But I don’t have to rely on my own observations as much these days: Research into the human-animal bond has confirmed what I have always known. A life with animals is good for us all, and possibly even more important when we are children.

Nuturing a Natural Instinct

Children are naturally attracted to animals, whether they’re cartoons, stuffed animals or the real deal. Adults should nurture that animal attraction even as we supervise it for safety. No infant or young child should be left alone with a pet, and all children need to be taught how to pet and hold an animal — and when to leave the family pets alone. Adults should focus on teaching what’s “right,” not what’s “wrong.” Children should be taught to respect animals but not fear them.

As children grow older, many of them want to help animals — and we should let them. This is just another way to allow animals to assist in teaching life’s most important lessons: compassion and generosity. If you doubt me about how much children want to help, start asking kids what they want to be when they grow up. A veterinarian is a very, very common answer!

Model Best Behavior

If your family’s pets are too often lost in the shuffle of school, carpool, soccer, and dance lessons, it's time to look at moving them up in the priorities. While it’s true that there are many things competing for our attention, pets are family members — or they should be — and they must be cared for, just like the rest of the family.

While pets should never be left to the exclusive or primary care of a child, children can certainly take an active role in pet care and training. Don’t make tending to the pets a “have to;” use your words and behavior to model pet care as a “want to,” a loving gift to an animal who’s counting on you and your child. Assign realistic, age-related tasks, and be supportive of your child. This is important because it sends your child the message that when someone else relies on you, it’s time to shut off the video game and help.

Complete the Circle of Caring

How about a project or two? Helping children raise money for homeless pets isn’t that hard, if it’s done one penny at a time. Or just make it about small change: Have your child ask family and friends to save their change for a month. Donations will need to be counted and rolled or taken to a coin counting machine. Once this is done, your child can donate the cash to a shelter. She can also ask around and collect one key thing that shelters need a lot of: towels. A few old towels here and there really add up, and can give everyone an excuse to clean out the linen closet.

For more formal volunteering, encourage older children to volunteer at shelters, which always need dog walkers and cat socializers. Your local zoo may have a volunteer docents program for teens as well. And keep an eye out for “one shot” volunteer opportunities you and your child can do together, such as working a one-day nonprofit spay-neuter clinic or participating in a fund-raiser or adoption event.

The best thing of all? Because most children love animals naturally, helping that love grow will not be difficult. With your loving, caring guidance (and common sense, of course), you will be helping to provide your child with the secrets to a happier life. I can already see it in my granddaughter’s eyes, and I want you to help give other children this precious gift.