Petagrees: Kids and pets aren’t always a perfect combination

Photos of children with dogs can be heart-melting, as we associate this partnership of young innocence with peoples’ most popular companion animals. The pictures are so heartwarming that any parent of young children wants to have those same type of photos of their family. Although the match of children with dogs and cats seems perfect, it is not always the case.

Most people involved in the veterinary and animal care professions have a slight heart racing moment when we see children hugging, kissing and laying on animals because of the known potential of horrific disaster. Any animal, domestic or not, has the potential of doing great harm. Their communication is a completely different language from our own. Take the time to learn and teach children about “reading” animal body language. There are many great books and plenty of internet resources, but this is one that does a great job with introducing the topic — “Kids and Dogs: A Parent’s Guide to Canine Body Language & Safety.” It can be found at

If searching for more scientific research, this site provides several studies on the topic:

Here is what animal professionals would like dog (and cat) loving families to know:

Steadfast, always friendly family pets can be injured, ill or aged, which equates to being painful. However, domesticated, animals typically have an innate tendency to hide discomfort or injury for as long as possible. We oftentimes do not notice an animal’s pain until it becomes unbearable for them, so a painful pet that is doing well at hiding its symptoms can be pushed over a threshold when someone pats them too vigorously, grabs ahold of them to embrace or steps on a tail or foot.

When a pet owner (maybe even yourself) gives permission and states with absolute confidence that their pet would NEVER bite, they are not quite speaking the truth, there is always a potential.

Learning about and teaching your family that your pet’s temperament does not equal to all dogs (and cats) being tolerant, friendly and welcoming. Children who come to know their canine companion as being ever willing to take on hugs need to learn that many dogs do not care for the hugs, especially from a stranger, however small and well intentioned that stranger is. A dog that is not familiar or comfortable with young children can be in utter terror over the intrusion. The dog’s terror is not viciousness, it is absolute fear and their response options can be limited by a leash.

The absolutely heart-breaking job of euthanizing a family pet because it bit or acted aggressively to someone takes an emotional toll on animal health care professionals as, most often, it is a good dog or cat placed in a situation that could have and should have been prevented simply by reading the pet’s body language. Most domesticated animals use biting as a last resort.

When confronted face to face with another animal (a human for example) staring directly into a dog’s eyes or being touched on their face, in dog language can be a confrontational gesture.

Children behave differently than adults. High pitched vocalization can frighten or hurt a pets ears, rapid random motions are confusing and a child having food in their hands can be seen as an unintentional offering — and some pets do not take treats gently.

Start looking carefully at a pet’s expressions and body language in some of the cherished birthday and holiday photos, even in advertisements, there are, unfortunately, many great examples of dog expressions and mannerisms that are warnings the photographer was unaware of.

Cautionary situations:

1. Disturbing a sleeping animal or one that is on sedative or pain medications;

2. Getting too close to a mother dog or cat with pups or kittens;

3. Taking toys or food away from a dog;

4. When approaching a dog and owner, it is important to ask the owner if it is ok to greet the dog but it is more important to read the dog’s body language to see if it ok with them;

5. Riding or laying on a dog is not ok;

6. Dressing dogs or cats in clothing can be extremely stressful to many dogs and cats;

7. Dragging any animal with a leash or by the collar is never acceptable except during an emergency;

8. Having someone care for or walk your pet without introduction and training.

Teach children how to behave when a strange dog approaches: Stand perfectly still, hands at sides or in pockets, angle body instead of straight on, no lasting eye contact. Do not run, you will not beat them in speed or agility and their instincts may be to chase what is running. Call for help. If dog bites or jumps on you, curl into a ball covering ears and neck, tuck face to the ground.

Domestic dogs and cats can be the most unconditionally loving being in your life. Getting to know them and understand their language is one of the greatest gifts you can give them and offer to others.

Terry Hannum is a licensed veterinary technician, a farmer and an animal advocate. If you have a subject you would like to have her address, email Her columns can be found at

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