It really wasn’t the boy’s fault. He was playing in his yard when a stray dog wandered over. The dog jumped up and bit the boy on the side of his face. The dog fled and Animal Control couldn’t find it. Rabies is in the area and there was no way to know if the dog was rabid without capturing and quarantining it. So we had to assume the worst, and start the boy on the rabies vaccines. The vaccines aren’t so bad- no worse than regular vaccines. But the rabies immunoglobin, a medicine to prevent the rabies virus spread, must be injected right into the wound. It was not a good night for the boy or me.
Dog and cat bites make up plenty of pediatric ED visits. Usually it’s a neighbor’s animal or the family pet at fault. Occasionally it is a stray. When a child gets bitten, there are lots of medical problems to address. The most obvious worry is the wound itself. Kids explore with their faces and hands and want to touch and look closely at any animal. If they get too close and the animal feels threatened, it protects itself by lashing out with tooth and claw. The resulting face wounds sometimes leave scars that even plastic surgery can’t hide. Then there is the worry about infection.
There are three infections that dogs and cats can transmit. The biggest worry is rabies. Rabies is a virus that wild animals get by biting each other. Rabies attacks the brain, makes the animal go mad and bite other animals (and thus pass the virus on), and then the animal dies. It is very rare for any animal, or human, to survive rabies once the infection takes. The next concerning infection is Pasteurella, a bacteria for which we give antibiotics. The only face laceration I remember getting infected was from a dog bite, though the child was on antibiotics. The third infection is Tetanus. This is another good reason to be sure your kids are vaccinated because like rabies, tetanus often kills.
The newspapers recently ran a story from Oregon about a 22 pound cat named Lux who attacked his family. The seven month old baby pulled Lux’s tail, so Lux swiped the baby in the forehead with his claw. Then he got so aggressive that he trapped the parents in a bedroom until police arrived. Even more concerning, the family is keeping the cat, getting it “therapy.” Now, cats are carnivores, meat-eaters who are hard-wired to hunt, kill, and eat. Some are nicer and more family friendly than others, but I doubt that any therapy will help Lux and a baby get along.
My point is not to give cats a bad rap as pets, but to illustrate safety issues. The first thing is to not have a pet with a toddler. Toddlers are explorers. When they explore things they touch them, peer at them, and grab and pull on them. Dogs and cats are often patient with such behavior, but not always. You can’t know when the ancient purpose buried in their DNA (defend, hunt, kill, eat) will come out with such treatment. Wait until your kids are school age before getting a dog or cat.
Another safety concern is fencing for dogs- to keep them in, or out. Fences keep your dogs and kids in and away from the neighbors. They also keep other neighbor’s dogs or strays out. Also, pick a dog breed that is less aggressive. Terriers, pit bulls, chows, and breeds like them are more aggressive and more difficult to train. Poodles and retrievers tend to be safer with kids. Veterinarians can help you pick a breed and tell what behavior to look for in an individual dog. Finally, teach your children how to treat pets and other animals. Pets are not play-things or wrestling partners. They need to be played with in appropriate ways, and need to be trained to do the same with your kids.
Feel free to get a pet: dogs, cats, and humans have been great companions for thousands of years. However, dogs and cats have been hunters for even longer- treat that knowledge, and them, with respect.