(our thanks to Dr. Brian Hunter, DVM, for this article)
Animal bites are the number one health hazard to children with half of all children being bitten by the age of twelve. Pets are 5 times more likely to cause injury than playground equipment. Most often an animal living in the house causes the injury, or is the pet of a friend or relative.
About a third of a pet's temperament is inherited from the parents. The other two-thirds is a result of how we interact with and train that animal. Beyond this, we need the ability to read and understand animal body language to tell us when they are excited, agitated or upset. Neutered animals are three times less aggressive than intact animals, and housedogs are less aggressive than backyard dogs.
Puppies and kittens have lots of energy like children, but lack control over the intensity of their actions. They use claws and teeth, much as we use our hands, and interact with us just as they would interact with a littermate. Rough play can increase behavior problems that may be developing and program the pet into believing this same level of rough play will be acceptable when it is grown and stronger. Wrestling and use of hands as toys in young animals can increase aggressive tendencies that will be hard to suppress as the animal ages. In fact, pets are not socially mature until about two years of age, and like children, can make poor choices in judgment and restraint that they would not make as older animals.
Do not correct the animal by swatting them, or by thumping the on the rump. This only causes the pet to react with additional rough play. Similarly, avoid grabbing the pet by the scruff of the neck or jowls and shaking it, swatting it or rolling it over and growling at it. These actions have real dangers of injury to the pet or yourself. Do not mimic actual animal behavior and teach children that physical abuse of animals (and people) is unacceptable. Further, it may only increase the undesirable behavior in the pet as it seeks human interaction, and if no positive interaction is available, then negative interaction is better than no attention.
In addition to temperament and language barriers are physical problems that add to the situation. Any animal with a painful condition such as arthritis, back problems, wounds, dental pain or a variety of other maladies will react to protect itself if it believes a child's actions will create more pain. Also, some seizure disorders can manifest as aggression. Your veterinarian should be involved in trying to determine whether there are medical problems causing behavior issues. Through an annual physical exam many problems can be found and treated earlier to reduce pain in the pet. The veterinarian is also an excellent resource in diagnosing and treating behavioral problems.
To be effective, the principles listed below should be reviewed at home with your child. Animal safety training for children and obedience training for dogs are essential for your pet's life, since many animals are put to death each year due to behavioral problems that were preventable or due to our inability to understand the language of pets. Too many children are needlessly injured each year by animals. Help us keep you child safe.
DO & DON'TS
Do let an animal sniff the back of your hand before touching it
Don't give kisses or hugs. Pets don't like this, resulting in bites on the face
Do ask permission before petting someone's pet
Don't pet on the head first; let them sniff the back of your hand then start on
their side or back and see how they respond.
Do keep your pet's nails trimmed. Frequent trimming prevents scratches
Don't approach dogs with puppies, dogs in cars, dogs tied to trees or in fenced
yards. They see you as a threat.
Do play with your pet every day, but stop if they get too rough or complain.
Don't play keep away, chase me, wrestle or use your hands as a toy.
Do reward your animal for good behavior with petting and food treats
Don't take food from your pet's bowl when they are eating or take away its toys
Do be watchful of approaching strange animals and use a backpack or bike as a
Don't run away or yell. Instead, you should be a tree or a rock. When it appears
safe back away.
Do talk to your pet and stomp on the floor to wake it if your pet is older and
hard of hearing. Startling a sleeping pet can cause it to snap at you.
Don't ride dogs like a horse, many have arthritic backs or painful hips.
Do have an adult present to supervise infants and toddlers around dogs at all
Don't stare at a dog. They view this as a threat.
Do freeze and say "no" loudly if your puppy or kitten is getting too rough with
its teeth. Turn and walk away to say the game is over.
Don't pull your hand away immediately. That means that it is a game. Say "no"
Do play tug-of-war gently, but only with parent approved items.
Don't lift the pet off the ground, swing violently fron side to side or continue to
play if any part of your body is touched by the pet's mouth. Start and stop
the game with commands of "take it" and "enough."
Do enroll your dog in an obedience course. Manners need to be taught and
trainers can help you prevent or solve many problems.
Don't wait until you just can't stand teh problem any more before consulting your
veterinarian. Correction of behavior problems takes time and effort.
Do take time to review animal safety even if you don't have a pet. Friends and
relatives have pets and many animals are left out to roam the neighborhood.
Don't think you pet will never bite. Under certain circumstances any pet could
bite, just ask one out of two children under the age of twelve.