I don't know the difference between rat and mouse, and fox, wolf, and jackal in real life. Means that I know they are different but I can't make out who's who on seeing them.

The story books have hand painted pictures of all these animals, and somewhere they call them mouse and other place they call them rat. Same is the case with fox, wolf, and jackal.

The toddler is 22 months old. I read her the stories and she listens attentively. I point out to rat and say this is rat and then ask her to point out to the rat again, which she does.

Question: Should I stick to rat and fox irrespective of what the story book writes? Should I use rat, mouse, and fox, wolf, jackal whenever story book mentions them?

Shouldn't that be confusing to the child? Till what age should I continue doing the same?

I forgot turtle and tortoise too! :(

  • 3
    Do you mean that sometimes they depict them similarly or that you do not know the difference personally? I'd stick with what the books says. at 22 months your daughter can soak in the idea that a tortoise looks like a turtle but lives on land and a turtle looks like a tortoise but lives in water. Same idea with a rat and a mouse. And I personally don't see a relation between a fox, wolf and jackal. Those are pretty far apart. Fun thing with kids is you can explain it however you feel it makes sense to you.
    – Kai Qing
    Apr 7, 2015 at 1:24
  • @KaiQing Books depict them similarly. As far as "fox, wolf and jackal" are concerned - seeing the hand painted pictures I am sure most people won't be able to notice the difference. Nor can anyone notice the difference between rat and mouse. The story books don't use photographs, they use paintings. Also, the animals here were clothes sometimes. Apr 7, 2015 at 1:29
  • 1
    To me, even in hand drawn paintings, I would expect some difference, mostly in coloring (rat is brown, mouse is grey, wolf is grey and big, fox is red with white tail tip and small, jackal is brown with black... ) If it doesn't show this, I think it is a bit odd. Do they wear different clothing? If the point of the story is that they look the same/are confused for each other, maybe the book is meant for older kids?
    – Ida
    Apr 7, 2015 at 16:32
  • Did anyone else immediately think of "What Does the Fox Say" when they read this question? (Search on youtube for that text if you don't know what I mean, and then be prepared for your children being utterly lost in laughter for a good five to ten minutes.)
    – Joe
    Apr 7, 2015 at 17:07

6 Answers 6


If I'm understanding your question correctly (and please correct me if I'm wrong), the artwork in the book doesn't sufficiently differentiate the characters enough that you (as an adult) can tell them apart.

I think your concern about confusion is valid.

Is there a particular reason you really want to keep using that book? I would be a bit concerned that your child might not be getting the visual learning she can benefit from with such a confusing book.

There's a reason young children's books have easily identifiable creatures and objects. It's to help them to learn shapes, patterns, colors, relative sizes, etc. A picture book that fails to do this fails to give a child the visual cues they need.

How important is it? That's up to you. I doubt your daughter will mistake the animals as an adult in real life. But she is missing something now.

My eldest child's first word was "Moo." He was only seven months old at the time. (A paper I link to included a study that concluded my child should not have been able to do this for another two months!) I would read to him often, and one of my favorite authors had pictures that were plain but colorful and easy to distinguish. One day, as I had done many times, when I turned to a page with a cow, he said "moo". I was a bit stunned (I had not thought he would have been able to do so this early.) But he did this consistently. (I included a link at the bottom to the book. If you flip through the pages, you'll see what I mean about the simple yet colorful visual style.)

My child was (is) not a genius. I thought I was just entertaining both of us at the same time. However, he was clearly learning more than I realized.

My advice is to use books where the child receives better visual cues. You may enjoy it as much as your daughter, and she is learning more than you might think.

I was sad the day I donated all the children's books that my kids didn't want to keep to a children's hospital. I have many happy memories of reading these books to my children. I felt like they were old friends.

Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose
The Origins of Joint Visual Attention in Infants

  • 1
    +1 for the suggestion to use a different book and the links at the bottom. Good stuff per the norm :) Apr 7, 2015 at 13:30

Over time kids get better at distinguishing animals... for a while, my toddler called most four legged mammals (cat, dog, cow, horse) all "cat" because we had one at home, and the other animals were close enough. It's basically a matter of whether they've been shown the difference, either in-person or in pictures.

Provide as much range of information as possible so her vocabulary (and imagination) have room to expand -- we patiently provided the correct name for dogs, cows, etc. and eventually she distinguished different species accurately. Looking at photographs can be a much better way to accurately explore differences (e.g., "Look, the fox is small and orange, the wolf is big and gray!") that hand-painted pictures may not show as well.

  • Dogs and cows, and cats can be seen daily in the streets here. She has seen a rat too. And I don't know whether that was a rat or a mouse. I called it rat. The major problem is with the animals which can't be seen on streets in daily life like - fox, wolf, jackal, turtle, tortoise. Apr 7, 2015 at 1:32
  • Mice are much, much smaller than rats (if you see it on the street, it's probably a rat) :) The internet may be the best resource for "not local" animals -- while I've seen turtles and tortoises in a zoo, I have only once seen a wolf (in a wolf preserve) and never a fox or jackal, and I have no doubt that zoo stock varies widely from place to place!
    – Acire
    Apr 7, 2015 at 1:35

There are some good answers, but I was puzzled over one part of your question.

You write:

I don't know the difference between rat and mouse, and fox, wolf, and jackal in real life. Means that I know they are different but I can't make out who's who on seeing them.

Do you mean that you not know the difference between those animals, and would not be able to tell them apart? If this is a book your child enjoys, my advice would be to take some time to learn them apart.

a good place for you to start would be wikipedia: Fox Jackal Wolf Mouse Rat Turtle Tortoise

(note that use of turtle/tortoise actually differs a bit depending on American, British or other English usages.)

In addition you (and you child) can maybe go to a zoo and look at these animals, and I second getting a book with good clear pictures of animals, in addition to the more art and story driven book.

Then you write:

The story books have hand painted pictures of all these animals, and somewhere they call them mouse and other place they call them rat. Same is the case with fox, wolf, and jackal.

So my question is: does the book actually mix these characters up? Or are they distinct characters with similar pictures?

if the intent of the book is to mix them up, (which it could be to tell a certain type of story), the point of the story might be more suitable for older children.

if the characters are different, but you think they look the same, I would say to go with what the book says and treat them differently. Even if they don't look different to you, the idea that there are different animals and that they look similar is ok.

I suspect the point of this book is not to teach how the animals look, but to have a story involving some different characters. Treat the book as such, and worry about teaching how the animals look from a different source.


At 22 months, I wouldn't worry terribly about accurately identifying the animals in a drawn picture book. Drawn pictures won't ever be all that accurate, and honestly reading to her is more important than accuracy. Keeping her involved whether it's a rat or a mouse is what's important.

What I would do is get a photo book of animals which features the various animals separately, and use that to teach your child the difference between the similar animals. In the US for example, our kids like Priddy Books, which print "100 First Animals" and similar books.

At around 2, these are perfect, because you can start by introducing the animal names; then in a few months he/she will start learning which is which, and you can start discussing the differences. Then you can move back to the drawn picture books and have long, complex discussions about what specific animals are in them; as they're drawn pictures, it may not be possible to identify them perfectly, but the child will undoubtedly make an attempt, and have strong reasons behind that.

You can also point them out in real life, and make connections to the books (both drawn and photo). This will help a lot in developing an understanding of what the differences are, as there are things you can see in 3D that you can't in a photo.

With our older child, when he was around two we were reading the photo cars/trucks/trains/construction vehicles books, and by 2.5 he was able to identify the real ones and to correct me when I was wrong about something being a Bulldozer versus a Front Loader. Even when he was unable to identify something correctly, we would have good discussions about what they were, both in picture books and in real life, and we challenge him still to explain what reasons he has for calling something a particular kind of vehicle.

  • So, if I'm reading your answer correctly, at 22 months, you would have read your son a book about cars/trucks/trains/construction vehicles, where they all looked alike. Not to worry terribly about accuracy. At 2.5 years, he would have been confused, and that would be ok. Because, that is the question she'd asking. Apr 7, 2015 at 16:35
  • I think there is some confusing about the original question: Is the book confusing, and/or is the parent confused and/or is the toddler confused. I think Joe is going on the assumption that it is the toddler that is confused.
    – Ida
    Apr 7, 2015 at 16:38
  • @anongoodnurse I was differentiating between story books (which I assume is what the OP is talking about - drawn pictures, etc.) and photo books. I would not have particularly worried about being "correct" in the drawn picture books - go with what they say in the book, or what my guess is. I would (did) read in parallel photo books, which show actual photographs of the vehicles, and in those books pay attention to the differences and point them out. He was able by 2.5 to point out to me what the differences are better than I was.
    – Joe
    Apr 7, 2015 at 17:03
  • @Ida No, I think the OP was talking about the OP being unsure of what a drawn picture is (is it a rat or a mouse? Who knows?).
    – Joe
    Apr 7, 2015 at 17:04
  • I've added a couple of clarifications as it may have been a bit confusing exactly what I meant, particularly with negations in places that are unclear.
    – Joe
    Apr 7, 2015 at 17:06

What a great question!

I have found that many young children have difficulty distinguishing one type of animal from another. My son learned the word "dog" very early on (both spoken and signed). He used the word dog to describe cats and wolves and foxes.

I have witnessed many young children make similar mistakes: Cows/horses, snakes/lizards, cats/dogs.

My son is also very interested in animals. He loves animal shows (such as Wild Kratts), adored the Omaha Zoo, and is very observant when it comes to spotting animals (real or depicted).

So, I decided to use his confusion/misuse of the terms as a learning opportunity.

Every now and then I'll sit my son down in my lap when I'm using my computer. Then, I'll do a Google Image search for different animals. It's best to have Safe Search enabled, and set the options to search for Photos.

Then, we'll go through and look at the different animal types. For "dogs", there's such a variety! So, as we looked at the different breeds I tried to find common features to help him learn (big ears, long snouts). Some dogs, like pugs and bulldogs, obviously don't fit! For these, at least my son was getting exposure to different breeds.

After dogs, I'd switch to different animals. I really wanted him to learn the difference between dogs and wolves, because I noticed him calling my wife's wolf statues dogs. I showed him a lot of pictures, and pointed out how their ears and snouts are always pointy.

Something I did worked, because he not only started calling the statues wolves instead of dogs, but he's also pointed out other wolves correctly when we hadn't been exposed to them before, so we never prompted him on the correct term.

I also showed him foxes, and pointed out how they're smaller (like cats), and red/grey. We don't get exposed to them much, so I'm not sure he's learned foxes, but I do know he's learning that not all animals are the same.

You may also benefit from this informal training. Look closely between animal types, and try to see the differences. Some things to look for:

  • Size/shape of ears (pointed vs rounded, donkeys have much longer ears than horses)
  • Ears floppy vs upright (cats have upright ears, many dogs have floppy ears)
  • Length of fur (wolves have thicker fur than many dogs)
  • Color of fur/skin (pandas have black/white coloring, bears are solid)
  • Length/size of nose (dogs have longer snouts than cats, usually)
  • Comparative size of animal (bigger than X, but smaller than Y)
  • Length of body (many rats have longer bodies than mice)
  • Size of head (horses have big heads compared to deer)
  • Types of markings (red foxes have black tipped ears and feet)
  • Types of limbs (hooves vs paws)
  • Habitat (turtles in/near water and tortoises on dry land)

Once you understand the difference between animals more clearly, you'll likely be able to more easily spot where the illustrator took artistic license in your child's book. You'll be able to point on the aspects that make one animal stand out from the other, even if it's minor. I made a very minimalistic illustration to show some differences (I might make a better example later when I have a mouse instead of a touchpad).

If you can verbalize the difference between these animals, and correctly guess what they are, then you're on the way to improving the experience of reading these children's books.

A fox, a wolf, and a dog

1) Fox 2) Wolf 3) Dog

In the meantime, I'd continue to use the terms given in each book. While some artist's depictions of the animals might not be terribly clear to you (even if you brush up on animal identification skills), it's still teaching your child that even though animals look alike they are different. Eventually, their minds will come a conclusion and be able to identify different animal types. The age this happens will depend on not only each individual child, but also the types of animals they're differentiating (wolf vs. dog is harder than cat vs. dog).

Or, in some cases, they might never learn at all. While I'm pretty animal-savvy, I can't ever identify a gerbil from a hamster.


I used to worry similarly about "alligator" vs "crocodile." The truth is --it's nothing to stress about, one way or the other. This isn't your child's only chance to learn the distinction, and he or she won't hold it against you if you get it wrong.

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