Call me an uptight veterinarian or an overanxious mom if you like, but I get a deep-in-the-gut unsettled feeling every time I view a particular type of pet photo that has become all the rage these days, particularly on Facebook. I’ll bet you’ve seen these photos- the ones in which pets and young children are posed together. Have you seen the one of the newborn baby practically buried under the massive head of the family dog? How about the image of a young child carrying (dangling) a kitty by one leg? And then there is the photo that frightens me the most- the one in which a youngster is face-to-face with the muzzle of a dog, and the expression on that dog’s face is usually one of confusion or subjugation. When I view these images I cringe, wondering if and when that animal is going to lash out at that young child. I have the desire to shake the photographer while screaming, “Danger, danger!” These “kids and pets” photos are as anxiety producing for me as a high budget suspense movie.
I’d like to tell you about Ben, a patient of mine many years ago who helped set the stage for my “nervous condition”. One or two adults along with two young children typically accompanied this lovely Saint Bernard to his appointments with me. The children were always busy interacting with their dog. At any given moment one might be dragging Ben around the room by his collar. Whenever Ben did manage to lie down, he was treated him like a beanbag chair, the two children leaping and falling onto his soft belly. Ben always remained the gentle giant, ridiculously tolerant of the children’s disrespectful behavior. My attempts to tactfully educate the parents about setting limits for their kids failed miserably. They reassured me that their children were simply demonstrating love for Ben who, in return, would never dole out anything but affection.
I was saddened but not surprised to receive a phone call from the children’s mother asking if I knew of anyone who might be willing to adopt Ben right away, and it needed to be a home without children. It seems that Ben finally snapped, both literally and figuratively. He bit the youngest child in the face prompting an emergency room visit and extensive reconstructive surgery. The child would be permanently scarred (likely emotionally as well as physically) and the family needed to rehome Ben or have him put to sleep. Given the bite history, a suitable home for Ben could not be found. I remember crying as I set about the task of euthanizing my beautiful and dignified patient.
Respect and safety
When it comes to teaching young children about interacting with animals, I am all about two things: respect and safety. The respect part of the equation translates into a child behaving gently and kindly towards animals- no tugging on ears or tails, placing fingers inside mouths, pulling on collars, using the animal as a body pillow, lifting the animal without help from a grownup, or interrupting sleep or meals. Such respect is not intuitive for most youngsters. It is something that must be taught and carefully supervised- no different than when teaching other important life lessons such as the danger of running into the street.
The safety piece is simple. Neither the child nor the animal should sustain injury as a result of their interactions. I would need dozens more fingers and toes to count the number of animals I have treated who have been unintentionally injured, often seriously, by the actions of a young child. Flip the coin and ask seasoned emergency room physicians how many young children they have treated who were injured by the family pet. They too would need more fingers and toes. Be it the child or the animal who is injured, in most cases they are victims of adults not paying attention.
What you can do
Here are some things you can do to enhance safe and respectful interactions between young children and animals. Feel free to add to the list:
- Actively teach young children how to interact with animals in a gentle, respectful fashion. Role model this behavior every chance you get.
- Be reminded that every animal is capable of unpredictable behavior. Never leave a young child unsupervised with an animal, even if that animal happens to be the beloved family pet.
- An eating or sleeping animal is wearing a “do not disturb” sign which should be respected.
- If your pet enjoys spending time in a crate or other small, enclosed shelter, consider this to be their sacred space and bar young children from entering.
- Avoid subjecting your pet to unnatural, uncomfortable poses for the sake of a photo!
Do you have young children and pets? How closely do you supervise their interactions?
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.