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.
Birds and fish
* Choose a small, domestic bird, like a cockatiel, parakeet, or canary, which won't hurt your child if it bites him (which is unlikely). These birds are fairly easy to care for and are less likely to spread parasites or bacteria than larger, imported ones.
* Don't let your child hold the bird; if he wants to pet it, you hold it and let him stroke its back.
* The cage should be cleaned daily -- by an adult. Wear rubber gloves, then wash them and your hands thoroughly afterward.
* Teach your child never to tap on the cage or stick any objects into it.
Tropical fish are among the safest, most colorful, and low-maintenance pets, but even they can present problems. * Tell your child never to put his hands in the tank. The water may contain salmonella or other harmful bacteria. * Don't buy predator fish, such as piranhas. * As with all pet foods (and medicines), store fish food and any chemicals for the tank out of your child's reach. Teach your child not to overfeed fish.
Reptiles and hamsters, etc.
About 3 percent of U.S. homes have a turtle, snake, or lizard, and more than 70,000 people a year contract salmonella from contact with these pets. "Don't believe pet-store certificates that claim an animal is salmonella-free," says Gary Smith, M.D., director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. "A reptile can test negative for salmonella one day and the next day it may show up in its feces." Because salmonella can be especially severe in young children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you keep reptiles out of homes with children under 5. If you do have a reptile, keep the animal and its cage away from the kitchen and food.
Little critters like hamsters, Guinea pigs, and rabbits are gentle -- and easier because the mess is contained in an enclosed space. To keep risks to a minimum:
* Choose your pet carefully -- hamsters, Guinea pigs, and rabbits, for example, enjoy being handled more than gerbils and mice.
* Before you bring an animal home, make sure it has no signs of "wet tail" (wetness near its bottom) or labored breathing; either could mean it has a bacterial infection.
* Handle the animal with your child for at least 15 minutes a day. "Many people regard small pets as 'starter' pets. They put the hamster in the cage, clean the cage once a week, and don't pick the animal up much, so it never gets used to being touched and is more likely to bite or scratch," says Shain.
Teach your child to hold his pet securely but very gently. "Kids can easily drop or squish a small pet, or pull its fur," says Bonnie Beaver, a veterinarian and professor in the department of small animal clinical sciences at Texas A&M University in College Station. When the pet is being held, offer it a treat -- like a baby carrot or a blueberry -- so it's a pleasant experience.
* Keep the cage in a place where you can supervise the animal -- and your child.
* Avoid ferrets or wild "pets," such as raccoons, chinchillas, and hedgehogs. "Ferrets have been known to attack children," cautions Beaver.