New Mexico's Pet Resource FALL/WINTER 2001



By Laura Banks, D.V.M.

Dogs and cats can be great companions for kids. A child who owns a pet learns to be responsible and compassionate, and has a friend for those long summer afternoons and after school. But it is important to teach children to be safe around animals. Bites and scratches by dogs or cats can occur in the home as well as from contact with stray animals. The results can be serious and traumatic. Disfiguring injury, infection, the threat of rabies, and a tragic lifelong fear of animals are all possible when a child is bitten or scratched by an animal.

How can a child safely interact with dogs and cats?

Most importantly, teach your children to always be gentle and kind toward animals. An animal that is in pain or afraid will bite or scratch to protect itself. Children should never hurt an animal, and should be taught not to pull ears, tails, or feet during play, or wrestle roughly with animals. And let them know that animals, especially cats, should not be restrained against their will.

The safest way to pet most animals is to avoid the face area and the rear of the animal. Strokes along the back and sides and behind the neck are generally accepted. Unlike dogs, cats often bite or scratch if they are rubbed on their belly.

A pet should be left alone while it is eating, sleeping, chewing on a toy, or caring for its babies.

Dogs that have been spayed or neutered are three times less likely to bite than dogs that are not "fixed". All family pets should be spayed or neutered to help prevent bites.

If at all possible a dog should have a strong, tall fence to keep it at home, rather than a permanent chain. Chaining a dog may make it aggressive and more likely to bite.

Children should generally avoid animals that are encountered outside the home. Some guidelines can help:

A dog on a chain is often particularly aggressive and children should stay well back from its reach.

Dogs in vehicles are notoriously protective and aggressive and can reach out and bite. Children should always ask permission before approaching someone else's animal. Particular problems arise involving animals that belong to a child's friend or neighbor. Often a child remembers playing with the animal in the past, and assumes the animal will remember also. The child may enter the friend's yard or approach the animal and fall victim to a nasty bite. Caution your children to wait for the dog's owner before going into the yard or petting the animal.

If a stray dog approaches a child, he or she should not try to run away. Running will encourage the dog to chase and attack. The child should stop and stand very still, staring straight ahead and not at the dog. The dog will probably wander away. If the child is sitting on the ground or is knocked down, he or she should curl up in a ball with the hands covering the ears, and remain still and quiet. If an attack should occur, teach your child to throw something for the dog to bite like a backpack or coat.

Teaching animal safety need not be scary for a child. The job can be accomplished using role-play. Play a game where you pretend to be a dog and the child can practice the "stand like a tree" and "curl up like a rock" tricks. And keep these tips in mind while you and your children are at home, in the car, or walking through the neighborhood. Quiz them about the animals they see. Should they pick up Scruffy's food bowl while he is eating? Should they pet the dog in that truck? Should they pick up that cat? Let your child know that all dogs and cats are not like the characters they see in the movies.

Animals can be great fun and make wonderful pets, but they should always be treated with caution and kindness.

Dr. Laura Banks is a veterinarian and a member of the Board of Directors of No More Homeless Pets of New Mexico.

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