Family pets cause approximately 77 percent of all dog bites and the number one cause of death of pets under the age of three is euthanasia at a shelter. The most common reason these pets were surrendered to the shelter is because they bit a child. This sad cycle can be stopped with attention and behavior adjustment for both humans and animals.

A dog bite can leave more than just physical scars on a child. The emotional pain and fear may stay with the child for the rest of their life. Unfortunately, the situation is not usually the child’s fault. Children are not born with an innate knowledge of how to appropriately approach and interact with animals so it is the job of adults to teach this skill. If parents or adults feel unskilled or unable to do this, there are professional dog trainers and behaviorists who can help create a program to instill these skills in children in relation to a personal pet.

Some basics lessons should include:

  1. Always ask permission to approach an unknown pet. Any animal may be a bite risk. After receiving permission, have the child ask the pet owner the best way to approach the pet. If permission is denied, respect the pet owner’s choice. After all, they know their pet’s behavior better than you or your child does.
  2. Never disturb a sleeping dog. The first reaction of any animal coming out of a deep sleep may be to defend itself. Instead, stomp on the floor nearby or make noise to rouse the pet before approaching.
  3. Respect the pet’s property. This includes their toys and food. Some pets are resource guarders, meaning they pose a bite risk if a child takes something of importance to the pet.
  4. Be aware of the signs of an overwhelmed pet. If the pet is trying to get away, let them. Don’t let a child follow or otherwise approach a pet who is clearly trying to move away from a child. Make sure the pet has ready access to safe place away from children. This may be a crate, a space under a table or bench or even a separate room.
  5. Children should be supervised around animals. This is true even for animals they know. Just as pets may pose a risk to the child, children may inadvertently cause injury to an unsuspecting pet with rough handling or climbing on or over the pet.

Whether based in fear, pain or reactive behavior—a bite is still a bite. There are usually some clear warning aggressive behavioral cues with dogs.

  • Direct eye contact from the dog
  • Stiffly wagging tail
  • Rigid body
  • Curling of gums exposing teeth
  • Attempting to appear larger, such as arching of back, ears straight up, tail erect and wide eyes
  • Attempting to appear smaller, with ears flat against the head, tail tucked under body and body curled up
  • Looking sideways at people

All of the above is a dog’s way of telling us they are going to bite if the situation does not change. Unfortunately, these cues are often misread or ignored, which leads to bites and former pets dying in shelters after surrender.

Dogs are not the only pet to be concerned about. Cat bites can pose a serious health issue because their bites create puncture wounds that seal up quickly, trapping bacteria under the skin. Those bacteria may lead to cellulitis, a life-threatening condition.

Like dogs, cats will try to make themselves bigger or smaller before resorting to biting. Warning behavioral cues of cats include ears flat back, a puffy tail, an arched back and hissing.

It is the job of the adult to watch for warning signs and run interference if a pet is becoming agitated or upset. Teaching children to respect animals and understand their boundaries may keep families together and has the added benefit of also teaching children greater responsibility, empathy, compassion and patience.

Mary Oquendo is a Reiki master, advanced crystal master and certified master tech pet first aid instructor. She is the owner of Pawsitive Education and Spirited Dog Productions. She can be reached at