Mixing children and pets makes for adorable photos and touching moments, but the combination can also lead to dangerous pet bites. A child’s unpredictable and unfamiliar movements can frighten or stress some pets, and children do not always understand how to read or understand a pet’s body language. 

The most docile of pets will bite if they feel threatened or cornered, which means parents need to remain vigilant and take special precautions to ensure everyone’s safety. The Southern Arizona Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center team wants to help pet owners create a safe and harmonious environment that protects their children and pets.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the United States is home to around 90 million dogs, with 45% of households owning at least one. Each year, around 4.5 million dogs bite, and roughly half of those bitten are children. While only around a quarter of bites require medical attention, children are most likely to be seriously injured. Reducing dog bites in kids requires managing both the child’s and the pet’s behavior and putting safety measures in place. Here are our top tips for keeping kids safe around pets.

#1: Educate yourself about dog behavior

You are responsible for keeping your child and pet safe, so you must learn to read and understand your dog’s body language, particularly learning to recognize signs that your pet is uncomfortable in a specific situation so you can intervene. Signs of stress can be subtle, including yawning, lip-licking, panting, or looking away. If the stressor isn’t removed, the dog will start creating distance, such as snarling, growling, or moving away. If these are also ignored, dogs may feel they have no choice except to bite, to protect themselves from a perceived threat. Remember—dogs rarely bite without warning—most people simply miss the warning signs.

#2: Teach children age-appropriate skills to interact with pets

Young children have a limited ability to read and understand body language, but you can teach them age-appropriate skills, such as touching pets gently, avoiding their face, feet, or tail, and respecting a pet’s space when they are eating or resting. Enforce these rules with your children:

  • Pets decide when to play.
  • Leave pets alone when they walk away.

As children grow older, you can point out specific body language postures, and explain whether they should or should not approach a dog displaying those cues. 

Most dog bites happen in or around the home, but your child could be approached by a strange or loose dog, and they need to know what to do. Teach them to “be a tree,” to remain still, and quiet, and to look away from a dog who approaches them off-leash, and to curl in a ball and protect their head if a dog knocks them down. When you are out and about and encounter dogs, children—and adults—should always ask before petting or interacting.

#3: Always supervise child-pet interactions

You need to look away for only a few seconds for something to go tragically wrong. Dogs can interpret situations differently than people, especially small children, and feel threatened enough to bite. Your child may not pick up on your dog’s body language cues, but once you know what to look for, you can interrupt interactions you feel could escalate. Whenever you need to step away, ensure you remove the child or the dog from the situation to prevent a problem.

#4: Use barriers to create safety zones in your home

From the day you bring your dog or child home, set up and enforce specific zones to separate them when you can not directly supervise their interactions. Use baby gates, which allow pets to see and hear the child and other family members, but not be in the actual room. Your pet can and should be allowed in the child’s zones to interact with them, but only when they are supervised and under control. 

#5: Provide a safe, no-child space for your pet

Pets who feel they can walk away and retreat to their designated safe space without the child following them are less likely to end a scary interaction by biting. Provide your pet with a crate or room that is off-limits to the child. This is also a helpful tactic for cats, who prefer to hide from rather than face a threat. 

Don’t let the possibility of a bite deter you from allowing children and pets to develop a relationship. With proper safety precautions in place, living with pets provides numerous benefits for children—and adults. Kids who live with pets may have fewer allergies, and they learn social skills, respect for others, responsibility, and all about love and loss.

Contact a local veterinary behaviorist or a professional trainer if you’re concerned about your pet’s behavior around children, or if you need help setting up your home and training your dog to safely accommodate everyone’s needs. Medical problems can lead to behavior issues, especially if they cause pain, so regular check-ins with your primary veterinarian are also a good idea.

If your dog needs specialty medical care, is bitten by another dog, or suffers any other emergency situation, our Southern Arizona Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center team is here to help. Call or visit 24/7 for all your pet’s emergency and specialty needs.