Obedience Training: It’s Not Just for Pets.
Keeping Children Safe Around Dogs and Cats
When even the gentlest dogs and cats feel threatened, the natural way for them to defend themselves is by biting and scratching. And the people they bite most often are children. 50% of children in the United States under the age of 12 get bitten each year, with those between the ages of 5 and 9 at greatest risk. Usually, the dog is familiar — their own, a neighbor’s, or a friend’s.
The jaws of an average adult dog can exert 200 pounds of pressure per square inch. The sharp, pointy teeth of a cat may spread bacteria to deep tissue. This can be especially damaging to children, who are more likely to be bitten on the face, neck and head.*
Situations that can make dogs and cats behave defensively include:
- Being startled
- Believing their territory is being invaded, especially when eating
- Physical pain
In addition, pets may become overzealous during play and not realize they’re capable of hurting people. Children should not take a toy away from a pet unless the animal is willing to drop it. They should also avoid disturbing pets when they’re sleeping or eating.
Many young children aren’t aware of their own strength. They must be taught not to hurt a pet by pulling, squeezing, or behaving aggressively. Teach your child which parts of your pet can be touched and how to pet gently.
Even well behaved children will occasionally interrupt a pet’s meal in some way, so you may want to prepare your dog or cat for this eventuality. Each time you feed your pet, purposely disturb the food bowl in some way. Nudge it with your foot at first, and as your pet becomes more used to this, pull the bowl away. Helping your pet to be tolerant can prevent him or her from feeling that his meal is being threatened.
Food can cause a problem between pets and children in another way. A dog who is not trained to sit and wait for a reward can pose a threat to a child (without meaning to) by jumping to grab food from a child’s hand. In his enthusiasm, the dog may bite or knock down the child. Make sure your pet minds his manners with proper training.
Learn the language
Dogs and cats can’t express their feelings verbally, of course, but animal body language can speak volumes. Children, as well as caregivers, should learn to recognize warning signals from dogs and cats.
Dog aggression warning signs
- Ears are back
- Tail is down and tensed
- Muzzle is tense, accompanied by low growling or snarling
- Head down, avoiding eye contact
- Teeth are exposed
Cat aggression warning signs
- Ears are upright, rotating slightly forward
- Ears can be folded back against their head in an attack posture
- Legs are straight and stiff
- Tail is stiff and lowered; a cat may swish tail back and forth rapidly
- Fur is raised, including on the tail
If a dog or cat is showing any warning signs, do NOT approach the animal.
Respectful behavior breeds safer pets
A dog or cat who is unpleasantly surprised by a child’s behavior may snap or scratch before there is even an opportunity to show a warning sign. Children should be taught to treat pets respectfully at all times. It’s far more effective to avoid upsetting an animal than it is to avoid an animal you’ve upset.
- DO let a dog sniff your closed hand.
- DON’T pet or kiss a dog or cat’s face and head. Instead, stroke them gently along the neck, back, and sides. Don’t pat them on the head unless you know the dog is friendly and tolerant. Petting and scratching a dog is preferred. While dogs may love being rubbed on the belly, never try to roll a cat over to rub her stomach. Cats may bite or scratch.
- DON’T tease a dog or cat with intimidating or threatening gestures.
- DON’T approach an unfamiliar dog or cat until you get the owner’s permission. The same goes for petting and picking up the pet.
- DON’T hold a cat who doesn’t want to be held. If she can leave when she wants to, chances are she’ll come back. And she won’t have a reason to scratch.
- DON’T approach a stray dog or cat. Avoid a dog who is chained or tied up. And never approach an animal who appears injured or sick.
- DON’T reach into a car or through a fence to pet a dog or cat. Animals in vehicles and yards may be territorial and likely to bite.
- DON’T try to stop a fight between dogs or cats — you could be seriously injured.
- DON’T run when approached by a strange dog. Running will encourage the dog to chase you, and he may attack. Don’t make direct eye contact with the dog. Stand very still and be very quiet if the dog approaches. Try backing away slowly. If the dog becomes aggressive, stand still and very slowly move your hands and arms to protect your chest and neck. Wait until the dog has left before moving away. If a dog knocks you down, do not move. Cover the back of your neck with your hands.
Regardless of how “well-trained” your children are, NEVER allow children age 5 or younger to play with pets without adult supervision. **
Spread the love, not the germs
Bites and scratches aren’t the only hazards pets can present to children. Children should always wash their hands carefully with soap and water after touching an animal. Keep a very young child’s or baby’s unwashed hands out of his mouth after he has touched an animal. Parents and caregivers should always wash their hands after touching pets too, especially before handling food.
Preparing your pets for a human sibling
If you don’t have children but are planning to, keep in mind that adding a new baby to your household can be stressful to your pet. Just as you prepare your home by purchasing baby furniture and diapers, you should help your pet make this big adjustment.
Before the baby comes
While you’re waiting for your new baby to arrive, make sure your pet’s vaccines and medical checkups are up to date. Have your pet checked for parasites. Get him or her used to nail trims. If your pet is not spayed or neutered, you may want to consider doing so now. Altered pets are less aggressive, calmer, and less likely to bite. (Neutering also increases your pet’s chances for a longer, healthier life by reducing the incidence of breast cancer and eliminating uterine, ovarian and testicular cancer.)
In addition to preparing your pet physically, you can help him or her know what to expect.
A new baby will command a great deal of time and energy, which will mean less of both for your pet. If your pet is attached to the primary caregiver, get him or her used to spending time with another family member before the baby comes to avoid a sense of sudden abandonment.
If your dog or cat likes to jump in your lap, teach him or her to wait on the floor beside you until invited up. If your cat likes to swat or pounce, encourage her to use appropriate toys, a cat tree, or other objects. To discourage your cat from jumping onto the crib or changing table, put double-sided tape on the furniture. If you don’t want your pet in the nursery, install a gate. This will enable your furry friend to wait outside while still being able to hear, smell and see what’s going on inside the room.
In fact, it’s a good idea to let your pet hear, smell, and see a real baby before yours comes home. If you have friends with infants, invite them to visit. Be sure to closely supervise all interactions. Other ways to familiarize your pet with your baby’s characteristics ahead of time are by sprinkling baby powder or baby oil on your skin so your pet is exposed to these new smells. If you’ve chosen a name for your baby, mention it so it becomes familiar to your pet. If you have toys or stuffed animals for the baby, make sure your pet understands that these are off limits with a stern, “no.”
After the baby arrives
Before you come home with the baby, have someone bring home a blanket or an article of clothing with your baby’s scent on it. This way, your pet can investigate this new smell before meeting the baby.
When you get home, have someone else hold the baby so you can greet your pet warmly. When your pet is calm, hold the baby and keep pet treats handy, both to distract your pet and to make this a pleasant experience. Encourage your pet to sit quietly nearby and be sure to acknowledge good behavior with praise and treats. Always supervise any interaction.
Try to maintain a regular routine as much as possible, so your pet can adapt more easily to the new situation. A dog who can sit, stay and heel would be a welcome companion when taking the baby out in the stroller, but be sure to practice this first without the baby. If your cat likes to cuddle, let her snuggle up next to you when the baby is napping. However, never let your pet sleep with your baby. A pet can accidentally smother an unattended infant.
And, while life will undoubtedly be busier, try to give your pet some focused attention without the baby every day. Chances are, you'll enjoy it as much as your pet will.
* Weiss HB, Friedman DI, Coben JH. Incidence of dog bite injuries treated in emergency departments. JAMA 1998;279:51-3. [PubMed]
** Centers for Disese Control, Healthy Pets, Healthy People