As my own little boy starts to express the independence and defiance that is a two year-old’s prerogative, this week I decided to discuss some safety aspects that you need to consider when mixing children and pets.
As well as the infectious conditions that can be passed on, we will also think about the fact that even the gentlest dog or most laid back cat will have a limit to the amount of chasing and tail pulling it will tolerate.
Teaching children a few basic rules about pets alongside how to recognise when an animal is upset or frightened is vital to keeping them safe.
Both dogs and cats can carry a roundworm called Toxocara, many people have heard of it because it can cause blindness. Children between the ages of one to four years are most likely to become infected because of their play habits.
The tiny eggs from this worm are passed out into the environment through dog and cat faeces and can survive in the soil or sand for years. This is why it is recommended children’s sandpits are kept covered when not in use and many play areas ban dogs.
Puppies can be infected with this worm before birth and both they and kittens will need more frequent worming than adults pets. Your vet will give you guidance on this as well as the options to ensure adult pets are wormed regularly enough.
Good general hygiene (washing hands before eating and after handling pets, soil or sand alongside washing food that has been in contact with soil), cleaning up dog faeces immediately and disposing of it sensibly and teaching children not to eat dirt or soil will all help reduce the risk of infection.
Looking specifically at dog body language it’s easy to forget how a child may interpret what we understand to be clear signals to keep away.
Baring teeth and snarling to us is an obvious sign of aggression but some children interpret this as the dog smiling. From this example you can see how simple misreading of the situation could end in disaster. The first instinct for a child who was frightened by a dog would be to run away but the act of running may trigger the dog to chase.
The current advice is to remain calm, slowly walk away with your hands in your pockets or with your arms crossed while not looking directly at the dog. As well as aggression it is important to recognise fear which can be displayed by a dog trying to hide, flattening its ears and lowering its tail or putting the tail between the legs. Tail wagging can be a sign of a happy dog but the best advice is to teach children never to interact with a strange dog until they have spoken to the owner.
Even then be cautious as for example, a normally lovely dog may never have come across a toddler before so may be frightened.
Encourage your child not to shout or scream and to let the dog come to them. The expression letting sleeping dogs lie came about for that reason and could even be expanded to include dogs that are eating or have a bone or special toy too.
From an early age teach your child not to play too roughly or tease pets and not to look directly at dogs. Train your dog not to jump up or be overly boisterous and ensure they are well socialised at a young age. Try to recognise when your dog is unwell, injured or has simply had enough so they can be given the space they need to get away.
Even for just a few minutes, young children should never be left unsupervised with any dog. The Dogs Trust website has a downloadable information sheet about staying safe with dogs and their website www.learnwithdogs.co.uk is especially designed to teach children more about dogs.
Next week we look at cats and children including safety aspects with a baby and how to reduce the risk of toxoplasmosis which is especially important if you are pregnant.