Many parents wonder what to think when their child hurts a pet. Certainly, with an older child, cruelty to pets is worrisome. But for the younger child, the issues are a bit different.
Age Is Key. With a child under 2, roughness with a pet is usually a result of his eagerness to find out about, interact with, and get a response from a pet. Children this young don’t really understand or remember concepts such as "Be gentle" or "Pat nice." Model good behavior around an animal but don’t ever trust that the lesson is sticking. "Cruelty" at this age is a meaningless concept; it's the parent's job to keep watch and prevent overly enthusiastic interaction.
Never leave them alone together. A child rarely benefits from a new pet at this age, so put away the hamster cage until he's at least 3 or 4. If the pet is well established or belongs to a sibling, don't expect too much learning and do expect some overly rough curiosity. Small animals such as hamsters, rabbits, or kittens are pretty to look at but bad to hold for a toddler. Squeezing is likely and scratching will follow. Keep small pets in the cage.
Understanding Jealousy. may be at the root of some of this roughness. Sometimes a pet or a very young child becomes jealous of an adult's attention to the other. If you've inspired love and loyalty in them, some envy is inevitable. So watch it — toddlers and pets who are otherwise docile can lash out at each other.
Some rambunctious kids will be unintentionally cruel to a pet while trying to figure out how to play with it. The look of surprise on the child’s face when the animal walks off or snaps tells you he never intended to get a negative response with his playing.
Start Teaching Now. After age 2 or 3, kids can really learn how to behave more appropriately with a pet. But they still cannot understand how the pet feels. They can learn how to play in acceptable ways: Throw him the ball and say "Fetch". They just can't understand generalities such as "Be gentle" or "Be nice."
You need to show more than tell at this age, and kids can learn and remember how to behave around an animal. Unintentional roughness may be part of the learning process. It requires a parent to teach the child specific, appropriate ways of dealing with animals
Intentional Hurting. The child over 3 who regularly, intentionally hurts an animal is another matter. This child has a lot of anger about something and he's taking it out on the animal. Pay attention to what he's saying with this behavior. Sometimes this kind of behavior appears in response to a stressor such as a divorce, or a change in the household or in daycare, or another big event. Talk to his healthcare provider or a mental health professional to help sort out what's behind this and get this child the help he needs.