Many families have pets. You may have had a pet before you had your baby. You may have bought a pet after your child was born. For many, pets become part of the family.
It is important to remember that our pets are animals. Pets react with their instincts. Instincts are the natural ways that your pet reacts to things going on around them. Pets do not think through their actions before they act.
Normally, your pet may be great around children. You may think your pet would never hurt your child. However, you need to remember that your pet will react if they feel scared, hurt, angry, or anxious. Reactions can include hiding, nipping, biting, and growling. Your pet’s reactions may hurt your child.
Remember that not all animals like children. Never force an animal to be around your child.
Learn Pet Body Language
Body language is the way that feelings are expressed through your body. For example, when you feel angry, you might clench your jaw.
It is important to learn your pet’s body language. Once you understand your pet’s body language, you can help your child learn this as well. Most of the time, animals do not attack a person for no reason. They will give warning signs through their body language.
Keeping Your Child and Pet Safe
Even if your pet has been great with your child in the past, don’t assume this will always be the case. Below is a list of things you can do to keep your child safe.
- Keep your pet’s vaccinations up-to-date.
- Put your pet in a separate room when you have people visiting. Lots of visitors in your house can make your pet feel unsafe and anxious.
- Do not let your young child and pet sleep in the same room.
- Put your pet in a separate area when your child is eating. Have your child sit when they eat. Wandering around with food in their hands is tempting for your pet.
- When your toddler begins exploring the world, create a space that is separate from your family pet.
- Learn to read your pet’s body language. If your pet is feeling tired, uncomfortable, anxious, angry, or confused, remove the animal from the area.
- Using a muzzle on a dog will not decrease the risk of harm to your child. Swiping paws can also be dangerous.
- If a child is bitten or scratched, clean out the wound carefully. Pet bites and scratches can get infected.
- If you have fish, reptiles, birds, or other animals in cages or tanks, attach the cages or tanks to the wall using brackets so that they do not fall on your child.
Dogs get excited, aggressive, and/or anxious if a child is running, waving their hands, getting excited, jumping, screaming, or shrieking. Hugs and kisses can also feel threatening to pets. Hugs and kisses can cause your baby to be bitten in the face or neck.
A dog will follow your hand movements and your child’s hand movements with their head. If your child crosses their arms across their chest or holds their hands up in the air, this causes the dog to look up at the child’s face. This can cause your child to be bitten in the neck or face.
Teach your child to be still around dogs:
- that they do not know
- that they know but the owner is not present
- that make them feel uncomfortable, scared, or worried
- that are chasing them
- that are really excited
Being still is easy. Teach your child these simple steps.
- Stand still.
- Look at their feet.
- Don’t make eye contact with the dog.
- Fold their hands in front of their stomach.
- Count the highest they can…over and over until the dog leaves or someone comes to help them.
Introducing a Pet to a Child
Don’t try to force a meeting between a pet and a child. Allow the pet to approach you and the child. It may take a while for the pet to become comfortable with the new family member.
Meeting a Pet
Your child should not make contact with a new animal or an animal whose owner is not present. Teach your child to take the following steps when meeting a new animal.
- Be still. This lets the animal become comfortable and calm with your presence.
- Ask the pet’s owner if your child can pet the animal.
- Once you have permission to pet the animal, hold out your hand and let the pet smell it. Animals greet each other through smell, so this will be familiar to the animal.
- Teach your child to pet the animal on its neck. This keeps your child away from the animal’s face and mouth.
Remember that your child learns behaviours by watching you. Follow the steps above when you meet a new animal or an animal whose owner is not present.
Behaviours that are Safe Around Pets
Teach your child what behaviours are not acceptable around your pet.
Pets are not playgrounds. Children should not climb on pets, pinch, punch, kick, pull a pet’s tail or paw, or sneak up behind pets. Teach your child to be gentle and respectful of pets. Teasing, harassing, rough housing, and being aggressive or overly excited around pets can result in scratches or bites.
Teach your child not to bother pets when they are eating or sleeping.
Links to Further Information
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: Pets and Children
- Caring for Kids, Canadian Paediatric Society: Children and Pets. Tips for bringing a pet into your home.
- Centre for Disease Control: Infants and Young Children; Animal Safety Tips
- Dog Gone Be Safe: Dog Bit Prevention Information and Programs
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