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Before Choosing a Pet: What Parents Need to Know

We are thinking about getting a pet for our child. What should we keep in mind before choosing?

If you are getting a pet as a companion for your child, wait until she is mature enough to handle and care for the animal—usually around age five or six. Younger children have difficulty distinguishing an animal from a toy, so they may inadvertently provoke a bite through teasing or mistreatment.

Remember that you have ultimate responsibility for your child’s safety around any animal, so take the following precautions:

  1. Look for a pet with a gentle disposition. An older animal is often a good choice for a child, because a puppy or kitten may bite out of sheer friskiness. Avoid older pets raised in a home without children, however.
  2. Treat your pet humanely so it will enjoy human company. Don’t, for example, tie a dog on a short rope or chain, since extreme confinement may make it anxious and aggressive.
  3. Never leave a young child alone with an animal. Many bites occur during periods of playful roughhousing, because the child doesn’t realize when the animal gets overexcited.
  4. Teach your child not to put her face close to an animal.
  5. Don’t allow your child to tease your pet by pulling its tail or taking away a toy or a bone. Make sure she doesn’t disturb the animal when it’s sleeping or eating.
  6. Have all pets—both dogs and cats—immunized against rabies.
  7. Obey local ordinances about licensing and leashing your pet. Be sure your pet is under your control at all times.
  8. Find out which neighbors have dogs, so your child can meet the pets with which she’s likely to have contact. Teach your child how to greet a dog: The child should stand still while the dog sniffs her; then she can slowly extend her hand to pet the animal.
  9. Warn your child to stay away from yards in which dogs seem high-strung or unfriendly. Teach older children the signs of an unsafe dog: rigid body, stiff tail at “half mast,” hysterical barking, crouched position, staring expression.
  10. Instruct your child to stand still if she is approached or chased by a strange dog. Tell her not to run, ride her bicycle, kick, or make threatening gestures. Your child should face the dog and back away slowly until she’s out of reach.
  11. Wild animals can carry very serious diseases that may be transmitted to humans. You (and your family pets) need to avoid contact with rodents and other wild animals (raccoons, skunks, foxes) that can carry diseases ranging from hantavirus to plague, from toxoplasmosis to rabies.
    • To avoid bites by wild creatures, notify the health department whenever you see an animal that seems sick or injured, or one that is acting strangely. Don’t try to catch the animal or pick it up.
    • Teach your child to avoid all undomesticated animals. Fortunately, most wild animals come out only at night and tend to shy away from humans. A wild animal that is found in your yard or neighborhood during the daylight hours might have an infectious disease like rabies, and you should contact the local health authorities.

Additional Information:

Last Updated
Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5 (Copyright © 2009 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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