Although most animals are friendly, some can be dangerous. More than any other age group, children between the ages of five and nine are the victims of animal bites; about 5 percent of youngsters of this age are bitten each year. Children nine to fourteen and next in line as the most frequent victims of bites.
When a new pet comes into the home–or if your child is sometimes exposed to dogs or cats in the neighborhood–make sure he knows how to minimize his chances of being bitten or scratched. Most often, a child is at risk if he teases, hurts, or plays too roughly with an animal. A dog might lash out to defend itself or to protect what it considers its territory or food. Incidents are rare in which a dog aggressively attacks when unprovoked. The box at the bottom of the page offers some guidelines on how to reduce the chance of bites.
If your child is bitten by a pet or other animal, do not ignore the wound. Infections can occur–more often from cat bites than dog bites–and on rare occasions a particularly vicious attack by a dog can even be fatal. Be sure any dogs or cats you own are fully immunized to protect both your pet and your family.
The bites of wild animals such as raccoons and bats pose a special risk of rabies, particularly in some locales. Bites by wild animals should be examined promptly by your pediatrician, and public health recommendations about treatment to prevent rabies should be followed. Often the psychological harm associated with an animal bite is at least as serious as the physical wound itself. Once bitten–or even snapped at or growled at by a dog–a child may develop a lifetime fear of all dogs and other animals. If your child becomes afraid of your own dog because it has bitten her, point out that your pet is normally good-natured but can sometimes become angry if it is teased, threatened, or abused. Ask what happened that might have provoked you pet to bite. In the immediate aftermath of the biting incident, consider a cooling-off period for a few days, in which you keep the dog in the back yard or a separate part of the house to give your child a chance to calm down. After that, your child may have to adjust the way she behaves with the animal.
Teasing or maltreating animals is not only dangerous, it may be a symptom that your child is having some emotional problems. Purposeful maltreatment of an animal is a cause for concern and should be discussed with your child's pediatrician. If your child continues to tease animals after you have talked about it with her and make it clear to her that this is unkind as well as dangerous, your child may benefit from the counseling of your pediatrician or a mental health professional.
Avoiding Problems with Animals
How can your child protect himself from attacks from his own or other pets? Here are some suggestions to talk over with your youngster.
- Do not pet or otherwise disturb a dog or cat that is sleeping or eating.
- Do not tease or abuse an animal.
- Never pet an unfamiliar dog or cat. Also, be cautious about touching puppies or kittens within view of their mother.
- When a child is approached by an unfamiliar dog, he should not run; that can often make the dog aggressive. Instead, he should refrain from making direct eye contact, slowly back away, and avoid sudden movements while still keeping the dog within view.
- If your child is riding his bike and is being chased by a dog, he should not try to pedal quickly away from it. Rather, he should stop the bike and dismount from it so that the bike is between him and the dog. Before long, the animal may lose interest in a non-moving "target"