Kids and pets are a natural match. After all, what's cuter than a preschooler cuddling a puppy or a toddler's face lighting up in front of a fish tank? Children's animal attraction is so strong, in fact, that often a baby's first word is the name of her pet. Aside from adding fun to your family, animals also teach kids about nurturing, companionship, responsibility, and even life and death.
As a mom, you want your child to reap the benefits of raising an animal without any of the problems. The first step: Make sure each of them is safe with the other. Here's how.
Every year about 400,000 kids need medical help for dog bites, and about 80 percent of canine bites are from animals that children know well. "Dogs may bite because they're frightened, especially if they're being teased, or because they're protecting their bed, a toy, or their food," says Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for the Humane Society of the United States.
- Teach your child to "be a tree"—to stand still with her hands at her sides and let a dog she doesn't know sniff her. Explain that if she runs away, the dog may think she's playing and chase her. Tell her to curl up into a ball to protect her face and hands if a dog knocks her down.
- Enroll your dog in an obedience class (you can do it as early as 12 weeks), so he learns not to jump on people and to follow some simple commands, which can help keep him under control around kids.
- Use baby gates to keep your dog in a room away from your child when necessary. A crate, which provides a safe haven for him and protection for your child, can be a very good idea.
- Teach your child to avoid dogs that are growling, baring their teeth, or whose fur is standing on end.
- Instruct her never to stare into a dog's eyes, which can antagonize it.
- Show her how to stroke a pup's back and sides, instead of reaching over his head.
- Never play tug-of-war or wrestle with a dog; roughhousing can trigger a bite.
- To prevent diseases caused by parasites: Leave poop scooping to adults, and bring your pooch for regular veterinary checkups.
- Have your dog spayed or neutered (at around 5 months), which can calm him.
"Unlike dogs, cats typically run away when bothered by a child. A cat will rarely chase anyone who runs away from it," says Shain. "But if a child chases a cat or corners it, the animal may lash out. Your child should learn to just let it go."
- Teach your child that if a kitty flips its tail back and forth quickly, it's more likely to scratch or bite, so avoid it.
- If your child is scratched or bitten by a cat, wash the area well with soap and water, and rinse for at least 30 seconds. If the bite punctured the skin, call your doctor. After a scratch, watch for swollen glands or lingering tenderness at the site over the next two weeks -- signs that your child may need antibiotics.
- If your cat tends to scratch people, ask your vet about declawing -- but only as a last resort.
- Keep your cat indoors to minimize exposure to ticks and fleas and to keep her safe.
- Teach your child not to pick up a cat, but just to pet it gently on the back or behind its ears, and never to bother one that's sleeping or eating.
- Don't let your child handle the litter box.
If you're pregnant
Avoid contact with cats because they can cause toxoplasmosis, a disease that may increase the risk of miscarriage or fetal deformities. To reduce your risk:
- Keep your cat indoors where he's less likely to hunt mice or other small animals. (Cats get the parasite from eating raw meat.)
- Feed your feline only commercial cat food -- never undercooked meat.
- Have your spouse clean the litter box daily. If you have to do it yourself, wear rubber gloves and wash both your hands and the gloves thoroughly when finished.
- Avoid stray or outdoor cats; you don't know what they may be carrying.