tips for keeping kids and pets happy and safe

Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Apr 26 2012

April 26th is National Kids and Pets Day! It’s a day to celebrate that special bond that children share with their pets. I still think back fondly to the days I got to spend with my childhood cat, Bianca. I knew her my whole life, and she lived to the ripe old age of 21, passing away when I was in college. My mother knew our bond was so strong that she couldn’t bear to tell me that Bianca died until I came home for the summer. She was worried that the news would have affected my exams!

You can’t help but have your heart melted by pictures of a child nestled alongside her favorite pet. Children see pets as confidants, heroes and best friends, and I think pets see “their” kids the same way. Pets also teach our children compassion and kindness and can foster responsibility in those children old enough to pitch in with animal care.

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Unfortunately, not all interactions between children and pets are positive. Each year, 5 million people are bitten by dogs, and a large percentage of these bites are to children. Children between the ages of five and nine seem to be at the highest risk for dog bites, and most bites occur at home with a familiar dog. Teaching our children the proper way to interact with pets can go a long way toward keeping them safe from bites or scratches.

So as we celebrate the bond between kids and pets, let’s also be sure we’re aware of how to keep that bond strong, and keep pets and kids safe and happy:

  • Be sure your kids know to be extra cautious around pets that are eating, sleeping or in pain. Startling pets while they are sleeping can easily lead to inadvertent bites, and pets who are eating might sense competition from children too close to the food bowl.
  • Teach children to ask pet parents before touching their pets. Not all pets are comfortable around children and may bite out of fear. This is especially important for kids who have pets that are very comfortable with them, as they may not realize all pets aren’t the same around wee ones.
  • Teach children to reach under the pet’s chin to do their petting. Reaching over a pet’s back or head can make them uneasy, which may cause them to bite out of fear.
  • Guide your toddlers on the proper way to pet. Use “gentle” or “soft” and guide their hands along your pet’s body. Discourage pulling of tails or ears, and explain that pets feel pain just like they do.
  • Teach children dog body language and how to recognize the signs that their pets just want to be left alone. Designate areas of your home (such as the pet’s bed) as safe spots that pets can go to avoid interacting with children.
  • Do not let your child play with your dog’s toys (and similarly, don’t let your dog play with your child’s toys). Avoiding confusion about which toys belong to which member of the family will avoid competition for these items.
  • Teach your children how to protect themselves in case of an attack. Rolling into a ball and protecting their head and face is much more effective than running or screaming if chased.

Pets aren’t off the hook here, either, as it takes two to tango. Socialize your pets early so that they are used to children. Ensure that your pets get plenty of exercise every day, and practice the basic commands you learned in early obedience classes. It will help to have your children practice commands with your pets, as well.

If you have questions or concerns about the interactions between your kids and your pets, be sure to ask your veterinarian how to best deal with them.

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