Child safety when with pets: Preventing attacks and 4 things to do when attacked

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What you need to know:

  • According to estimates by the World Veterinary Association, there are over 60,000 dog bites globally. Kenya accounts for over 10,000 cases annually.
  • If you have pets, it is important to have a vaccination schedule.
  • Pets need a free space away from kids where they can retreat to.

In September 2017, a two-year-old boy was mauled to death by six dogs in Nyeri. The boy was playing in his grandfather’s home when the dogs from a neighbouring compound attacked him.

In August 2018, a five-year-old boy in Nakuru was admitted in hospital with serious injuries from two dogs. The boy had gone to visit his friends at a neighbour’s house when the dogs attacked him.

These incidents show how sour the relationship between man and his fabled best friend can turn.

Granted, there are instances where dogs have proved heroic. In May 2005, a dog became the talk of the country. While foraging for food in the Race Course area of Dagoretti, Nairobi, the dog stumbled on an abandoned baby. The dog rescued the little girl, crossed the busy Ngong’ Road, and passed through a barbed-wire fence to get the baby to its master. Angel, the baby, was later admitted at Kenyatta National Hospital.

Turning vicious

Pets can turn vicious without notice, especially towards children. 11-year-old Santos Kibet was attacked by their family dog at home in December 2020. “He went to the dog’s kennel with a tin of food. He began to tease it, cornered and attempted to push it against one side of the kennel,” says his mother Regina Jemutai. The dog bit his hand. “It surprised me that a dog that was so friendly could turn vicious.”

According to estimates by the World Veterinary Association, there are over 60,000 dog bites globally. Kenya accounts for over 10,000 cases annually.

It is not just dogs that inflict pain or fear in children. Stephen Maina, 8, cannot walk a path that has a goose or a turkey. “I have been pecked at home. I am afraid of the way they cloak and run after children,” he says.

Most pet-related incidents involve unsupervised children below the age of 14.

Apart from bites and scratches, children can develop allergies when exposed to a pet’s dander (also known as skin flakes), saliva, droppings, or molds. This means that if your child is allergic, then you shouldn't have a pet at home. “Allergies to pets with fur or feathers are common. If the allergen comes into contact with your child’s skin, the result will mostly be skin rashes or hives,” says veterinary practitioner Isaac Kinyua.

“If you find out that your child is allergic to a pet, get the pet out of the child’s room, and keep the child away from the room for about three months. This will allow the pet's skin flakes to die out,” says Kinyua.

If you have pets, it is important to have a vaccination schedule. Some pets carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans such as rabies and cat-induced asthma.

Looking after your pet includes feeding and training. In most cases, a pet’s hostility is triggered by hunger, fear, or invasion. “Ensure that you immunise your cats and dogs, and have a control program for fleas, ticks, and worms. Keep their feeding and sleeping areas clean, and don’t allow their waste to pile up,” says Kinyua.

When around a pet

Pets need a free space away from kids where they can retreat to. The pet’s space should strictly belong to the pet – not the kids. There is a lot that you can do to train and instill pet discipline in your child to prevent attacks. Some of these include:

  • Let your child always ask for permission from you or the pet’s guardian when intending to play with it. Teach the child how to handle the pet. For instance, they should not touch a pet’s most sensitive parts such as the paw or belly, or poke it in the eyes.
  • Teach your child not to approach a pet that’s hissing or attempting to peck, scratch, or bite.
  • Teach your child not to go near strange pets. Always stick with other children when near unfamiliar pets to avoid accidental scratches, bites, or pecks.
  • Teach your child to keep away from teasing, pushing or ruffling a pet. This may cause it to attack out of fear.
  • Teach your child not to feed a pet with their bare hands.
  • Teach your child not to touch or rattle a pet before it sees them or familiarises them.

When Attacked

Teach your child how to remain safe under an attack. According to Kinyua, here’s what your young one should do:

  • Try to put a strong distance between herself and the pet. She can do this by shielding herself with a playing bat, for instance.
  • Roll herself into a ball, such that the head and face are well covered.
  • Keep still and very calm.
  • Tell you about the attack to enable you to establish what kind of pet attacked her and seek medical attention promptly.

Newborns and infants with pets

According to veterinarian Kinyua:

  • If you have a pet that is fond of staying in your living area or occasionally jumping onto your lap, make advance preparations to create distance. This includes shifting the closeness between you and your pet to another family member. This will make it easy for the pet to adapt when you have a newborn and all your attention goes to the newborn.
  • Never leave your newborn baby alone with your pet. If you have a small baby, it is important to be alert when your pet is around them, even in your presence.
  • Gradually familiarise your pet with sounds that come with newborns. These include the sound of baby noises, baby jingles, and monitors.
  • Never force your pet to stay close to your baby. This risks causing your pet anxiety, unease, and increases the possibility of injury.
  • When with your baby or infant, and your pet, show gentleness to your pet with incentives such as patting and positive praise. This will help the pet to develop positive associations with your baby.