My friend Vicki’s family was visiting her brother-in-law’s home when her son Philip was just a toddler. Nobody thought twice about her brother-in-law’s big dog; he’d always seemed well behaved. But when Vicki’s son wandered down the hall, tripped and fell onto the dog, that gentle family pet reacted to the surprise and pain by biting Philip’s face. They had to rush him to emergency for stitches, and the scar is still visible.
Vancouver clinical ethologist Rebecca Ledger, who studies behaviour of animals, is not surprised. “Even the gentlest dog may bite if he is in pain or frightened.”
Toddlers are attracted to animals, but they can sometimes be a hazardous mix. In fact, says Genevieve Reisinger, an animal behaviour specialist with the Oakville & Milton Humane Society in Ontario, “toddlers are probably at the highest risk of any age of being injured by animals. That’s because they move around more, play with noisy, flashy toys, and may touch, grab, hit and kick. They generally don’t mean any harm, but this can be highly stressful and sometimes painful for the family pet.” As Reisinger points out, “toddlers are not able to reason, understand or remember our specific instructions about what to do or not do around animals.”
So what steps can you take to reduce your toddler’s risk of being bitten or scratched?
Supervise. Because both toddlers and animals are unpredictable, keeping an eye on them when they’re together is the best way to prevent problems. Reisinger says: “No pet should ever be left unattended with a toddler.” Even hamsters, she points out, can bite.
Toddler, meet dog. “If you are bringing a pet into a home with a toddler, you need to manage the introduction carefully,” says Ledger. “Have the dog on a leash and use a basket muzzle just to be safe. The leash means you are in control and can move the dog, if necessary.” A harness on a cat will give you the same control.
“Try to have your toddler sitting on a chair or the couch for this first introduction,” Ledger suggests. “A small child running around may trigger a dog’s chasing instincts and the dog may nip. That’s not being aggressive — it’s just a dog’s natural reaction to a small creature running.”
Give them space
Create a pet sanctuary. “Dogs should always have a safe room or place where they can go for a personal time out when feeling stressed,” Reisinger says. This can be a crate, a porch, a dog bed, a bedroom — any place where the dog knows he’ll be left alone. You’ll have to teach the dog to go there when you see he’s getting stressed. Cats are generally good at finding their own sanctuaries under beds or in closets, but a cat door in the basement door may help if other locations aren’t accessible. The trick, of course, is teaching your toddler that the pet is not to be bothered. At first, Reisinger says, you’ll need to do this by closely supervising the toddler. You could also put up a baby gate.
Recognize the signs
Become a dog whisperer. “Dogs communicate with every inch of their bodies,” says Reisinger. “It’s up to us as adults to watch, pay attention and respond to their communications. Many bites happen only after the dog’s earlier signals have been ignored.”
Ledger adds that many dogs who are quite tolerant of small children when they’re young become less accepting when they’re older and dealing with arthritis or other chronic pain, or if they become blind or deaf.
Teach doggy etiquette. Tell your child never to approach an animal that is not with a person. When you meet someone walking a dog, Reisinger suggests: “Hold your child’s hand, and ask the adult from about five feet away if it is OK to pet the dog. Then ask the dog, by having your child hold out a fist for the dog to smell. Let the dog move toward the child rather than the child toward the dog. Let the toddler pet the dog for three seconds, then take a break to allow the dog to move away if he wants. If he seems OK, the toddler can pet for another three seconds. Show her how to use gentle strokes on the side of the dog’s neck, under his chin or along his back, avoiding eyes, ears and the top of the head.”
In case of injury
And what if your child is bitten or scratched? “If the skin is broken, the child should be taken to the doctor,” says Ledger. “There is always the risk of infections, and those can be quite serious and require antibiotics. Cats, in particular, carry a lot of germs in their teeth and claws.”
Despite the risks, Ledger feels strongly that children benefit from pets. “Research shows that pets help kids learn empathy and responsibility, and may reduce the risk of some illnesses and allergies. You just need to manage the situation carefully.”