Keeping Children Safe Around our Furry Family Members

Pets are often a child’s first friends.

Raising youngsters alongside dogs, cats, or other companion animals can be an early lesson in empathy and responsibility. Pets also bolster mental health and keep kids active.

But both children and pets are unpredictable at times. It’s important to always supervise animals near babies and young children, and never allow pets into a room where a child is sleeping.

If animals are unsocialized, scared, or aggressive, they can risk the health and safety of children. Likewise, it’s crucial to teach children how to play with and care for pets properly. Kids may struggle with impulse control, and inadvertently hurt their furry friends.

Here are some of the most common accidents involving pets and children, and how to avoid them.

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How to Introduce Kids and Dogs

If your pet is socialized and trained, it’s much less likely to bite or scratch, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Part of this process involves establishing positive associations with children. Reward your dog with treats after proper interactions with children.

  • Teach your child how the animal likes to be touched. This depends on the animal’s temperament and age, but be sure to emphasize soft petting and quiet voices. Let your child know the animal may need a little space at first, and help them identify the signs that their pet has had enough playtime.
  • Let children and dogs first interact from a distance — such as in a large room or a backyard — to see how both parties react.
  • Once you’re comfortable and familiar with your pet, start slowly introducing it to your children under the close supervision of at least two adults. You want to be able to grab your child quickly if something unexpected happens. The child should let the dog sniff his or her closed hand at first, and move calmly toward the animal. Rather than petting the dog’s head or tail, the child should lightly stroke its back.
  • Check your child’s clothes for food scraps or stains, especially if your dog is an eager eater.
  • If you have more than one child, try to make introductions individually to avoid overstimulation.
  • If your pet shows signs of aggression toward children, it may be time to seek professional help from a veterinary behaviorist or certified dog trainer to recondition your pet. If your dog is stressed by or fearful of small children, you can work with a professional on socialization, too.
  • Children should not touch a dog while the pet is sleeping, eating, chewing on something, or caring for puppies. Never let a child hit, kick, or hurt a dog, or place their face near a dog’s mouth. Model this behavior for your kids.

Common Accidents Involving Pets and Kids

Pets, if put in uncomfortable environments, can cause injuries to or illnesses in both children and adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are approximately 800,000 dog bites each year that require medical attention, and 334,000 are severe enough to warrant treatment in a hospital.

Other pet accidents include:

  • Bites and scratches, which can become infected.
  • Falls from being knocked down or over.
  • Choking on pet toys.
  • Pet allergies.
  • Suffocation while sleeping with a pet.
  • Diseases that can pass from animals to humans via food, water, or litter boxes.

How to Spot an Aggressive Dog

While there are well-documented ways to better avoid child-pet accidents in your own home, it’s important to identify the signs of an aggressive dog outside of your family. This could be a neighbor’s or a friend’s pet, or an unfamiliar dog encountered on a walk.

Teach children to never approach an unfamiliar dog, especially if it’s barking, growling, or showing strange body language. Tell kids to always ask the animal’s guardian first if they’re allowed to pet the dog.

Aggressive dogs may bare teeth, snarl, pose their ears forward, raise their fur, and straighten their tail. They’re often stiff, staring intensely at the perceived threat.

Frightened or anxious dogs may stand crouched, with a lowered head. They sometimes lick their lips continuously, tuck their tail between their legs, flatten their ears, and avoid eye contact. If they feel trapped or unable to leave the scary situation, they may growl and bite.

If your child is approached by a loose, unfamiliar dog, they should avoid eye contact with the animal and stand still until it moves away. It’s a bad idea to scream or run, as this may excite or frighten the animal. The child should slowly back away once the animal loses interest, or firmly say “no,” if the dog becomes assertive.

Teach your child to avoid making direct eye contact when approaching an unfamiliar dog. If your child is attacked, he or she shouldn’t try to outrun the animal; rather, your child should try to put something between them, such as a jacket, backpack, or bicycle.

If your child is knocked to the ground by a dog, their best course of action is to stay quiet and curl into a ball with their knees tucked into their stomach and fingers locked behind the neck to protect their head and face. The dog will likely lose interest if the child stays still.

For more tips about avoiding dog attacks, visit UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh online.

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.