Child Safety Around Pets

How safe is it to combine children under the age of 14 and pets? Most people acquiring a pet don’t give the question a lot of thought. Sometimes the acquisition is an impulse buy based on circumstance and pressure from the younger family members. Think Topsfield Fair and the rabbit exhibit. Or the pet store iguana or bird purchase. Nowadays it is easy to hit a button on the Internet and pay for a dog of a certain breed. Unfortunately with each of these purchases you have likely just pumped $800-$1500 into the booming puppy mill industry.

Sometimes the family wanders into the pet adoption center not realizing how fast a certain dog or cat will seize their attention and pull their heartstrings and come home unexpectedly with a dog or cat. Now that you have the pet how do you manage the kids’ interaction with the adored new member of the family?

It is best to plan ahead and do a little research if you are getting any type of pet. Find out what diseases the pet can carry and how likely it is to bite and under what circumstances. Also, investigate how to house and train the pet. Even rabbits can deliver a good nip. An iguana delivered the worst bite I have seen at my practice over the past 11 years. However, some iguanas live peaceably out and about their owners’ homes and are litter trained. Even chickens and reptiles can carry Salmonella.

Most of us think about dog bites when we think children and pet safety. Almost 5 million people suffer bites from animals each year. Half of those are children less than 12 years old and could be avoided

According to the National Canine Research Council ( and the Center for Disease control file://localhost/ttp/ – See more at/ http/ sthash.p7IcbOFq.dpuf , rates of medically attended nonfatal dog bites to children have been decreasing. The rate decreased from 26 bites per 10,000 children age 1-12 in 2001 to 20 bites per 10,000 children in 2011

An important part of avoiding bites is the education of our children. The vast majority of dog bites occur in children 4-9 years of age with a larger percentage of young boys. Teaching your children some of the following guidelines could help to avoid a painful lesson and potentially even save his or her life. When faced with an unknown dog, or a dog whose behavior seems to be odd, Dr. Kersti Seksel, a board-certified veterinarian and behaviorist from Australia, recommends the following:

  • Do not approach the dog
  • Look at your feet or the ground – do not make eye contact with the dog
  • Stand still – do not run if the dog approaches
  • Keep quiet- do not scream or yell at the dog
  • Do not attempt pat any dog on the head or reach your hand out

Children should be taught to never run up on a pet, especially one who is sleeping or feeding and that not every animal may be as friendly as their own pet. Teaching a child to ask the pet owner if it is ok to approach and then if it is ok to pet a dog can help to avoid many of the common mistakes made by bite victims. Ideally, the pet owner introduces the pet to the child.

Cats will not deliver bites unless they are stressed to a great degree. Cats will almost always avoid a standoff and attempt to hide. If they feel cornered their pupils will dilate, ears will lay flat back and hair will stand on end. They will almost always warn you with a hiss. Next will come a swat. The bite is delivered only if the cat has no way out. Some young cats will jump on family members legs and bite. This is playful but can hurt. This behavior is more for exercise and stimulation. The environment needs to be enriched and games and play with the cat must increase.

Even with the family dog, it is important to remember that some of the worst bites occur when a person attempts to remove a “high-value item” from the dogs’ mouth. When we ay high value we mean high value to your dog, not you. What are dog high-value items? Used tissues, deer carcass parts, and special treasures from the cat litter box, laundry items, and squirrel jerky. I don’t think the last item needs to be explained to dog people. Distraction or trade for a higher value item is a safer way to get the item out of the mouth.

An unknown child or your own bending over your dog, grabbing its scruff and staring deeply into its eyes without blinking and then smiling has just unknowingly displayed four overt displays of aggression to your dog and stands a good chance of being nipped in the face. Usually, a dog will give one or more warning signs, which kids are not so good at reading but should be taught.

Warning signs:

  • Yawning and fidgeting, hiding, tail tucked ears back = fear (fear can lead to aggression)
  • Ears up and body leaning forward
  • Tail straight up so you can see tail between ears when facing dog head-on
  • Staring unblinkingly at your eyes
  • Muscular tension
  • Fur on back standing up
  • Bark and or growl

One step you can take to avoid some of these problems is to socialize your pup with three people and three safe dogs daily from age 4 weeks to 16 weeks. Start behavior training classes with a trainer recommended by your veterinarian at 10-12 weeks of age. It’s never too late to train a dog but sooner is better than later. The socialization and training will allow your dog to feel more secure in potentially stressful situations when a stranger approaches. That will keep children approaching your dog much safer.