In 2014 I reported on a 22 pound cat named Lux who attacked his family. The family’s seven-month old baby pulled Lux’s tail, so he clawed baby’s forehead. Dad kicked the cat, who went ballistic and trapped the parents in a bedroom, prompting them to call 911. Yet they decided to keep the cat, getting it “therapy.” When therapy failed, Lux’s veterinarian diagnosed him with Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome, which apparently means “cat goes nuts for no apparent reason.” On medication and in an “experienced” cat-foster-home, he’s apparently doing somewhat better.
It’s been said that while dogs are man’s best friend, cats are, well, cats’ best friend. Dogs, as animals that live in packs, are natural fits in their “pack” families. Cats, as solitary predators, are less so. What is the best pet “fit” for families? A spate of animal bites recently in the Pediatric Emergency Department has made me think more about this.
Most cases recently have been dogs biting toddlers. Many attacks are unwitnessed by the parents, as the dog and child are in another room when the confrontation occurs. Often, pets and toddlers don’t mix. Infants and toddlers don’t know how to behave with pets: they’ll pull tails, get between pets’ mouths and their food, and lean in to kiss pets on the nose, unmindful that they’re making them nervous. I waited until our youngest was 5 years-old before getting our first puppy, and trained both how to treat each other.
It’s also important to pick the right breed. Guard dogs (Dobermans and Rottweilers), fighting breeds (pit bulls), and shepherds aren’t the safest with children. The first two can be aggressive, and shepherds often want to herd children, nipping at them like they were sheep or cows. Yet while farm animals have tough hides that withstand dogs’ teeth, toddlers’ skin is much softer. Finally, while everyone wants to rescue a dog from a shelter, rescues’ temperaments are less knowable than those of dogs from breeders. Finally, dogs neutered or spayed are less aggressive, and thus safer with kids.
Finally, don’t let that dog out! Dogs wandering from unfenced yards is a recipe for trouble. A big batch of bites we see is neighbors’ dogs straying into others’ yards, or children going into the dog’s “territory.”
Unlike dogs and cats, horses don’t usually bite kids. One of few I’ve seen was the time a boy was feeding his horse sugar cubes, and his fingers got chomped. When children are bitten, we worry that the offending animal could have rabies. If kids get rabies, they die. Always. Thus we call Animal Control to inspect the animal, and quarantine it for 10 days to see if it develops rabies.
Though I’d seen few horse bites before, I knew rabid horses are rare. I called Animal Control about what to do, who called the Office of Public Health, who called their veterinarian consultant. This advice came down: while probably safe, the horse could have been bitten and infected by rabid skunks or raccoons unnoticed. Lacking a corral at their facility to quarantine the horse, Animal Control settled on visiting it at home every few days to assess it’s status.
Bites from dogs, cats, and other animals carry infection risks for kids. First, tetanus is a concern, so it behooves parents to vaccinate their children, since tetanus is also quite deadly. Second, animals carry bacteria in their mouths, so bites that break the skin require antibiotics. That goes for bites from horses, dogs, cats, turtles, and humans. Finally, we worry about rabies.
Sometimes when we tell parents we’re calling Animal Control, they get defensive. They’re afraid their pet will be taken away, or killed. However, the animal is simply watched for 10 days, either at home or at Animal Control’s facility. If taken there, Rover returns home after 10 days. This protocol is for the child’s (and family’s!) safety. Again, rabies kills 100% of it’s victims. If we can’t watch the animal, like if it’s a stray or a wild animal that can’t be found, or parents hide their pet, then the child needs the rabies vaccine series. This consists of 4 shots, on the day of the bite and days 3, 7, and 14 after that. Also, the child needs Rabies Immunoglobin injected into the wound to prevent infection while waiting for the vaccine to trigger immunity. Getting shots into a wound and then 4 more in the arm is no fun for kids, and we usually convince families to give up Fido: he’ll come home soon enough.