Mixing Childern with Pets

Pawsitively Helpful Pet Tips

with DR. DEB

"Mixing Children with Pets"

+Photos and videos are often shared on Facebook pages depicting babies "hobnobbing" with dogs and sometimes cats or snakes.  Parents seem intent on posting such for friends, family, and the public hoping to achieve viral immortality.

+Many of these photos and videos make their way to veterinary behaviorist's Facebook pages.  One such doctor, Ilana Reisner, DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVB is concerned about this disturbing trend and the message being sent.  (facebook.com/ReisnerVetBehavior)


+These videos and photographs routinely depict a baby in an unsafe situation--one that could easily end in a bite, and a dog set up for a spectacular fall, all in the name of "cute".

+In one popular example, an infant repeatedly takes a cookie from a tense pug that--also repeatedly--takes it back.  In another, a toddler approached a large dog sleeping on a sofa, putting her mouth on the dog's muzzle to either kiss or bite.  Both videos include the soundtracks of giggling videographers--presumably the parents.  There is some awareness among commenters in social media that these children are in risky situations, but they are dramatically outnumbered by cooing (and sharing), admirers.

+It is wise to critique these posts carefully and bring attention to the risks they represent.  Although things may not have turned out badly in a particular video (as far we know), other parents may try to copy  or "out cute" each other using their own children and pets, by doing so, unknowingly expose them to a bite risk.


+Supporters of the "cute" video trade often that parents are supervising during the situations shown.  However, dog aggression can be devastatingly fast.  We know, for example, that most dog bites to familiar children occur in the presence of parents or other caregivers.  Furthermore, rather than growling, some dogs communicate the "warning" in complete silence or skip it all together (perhaps because they were historically punished for growling).  To the uneducated human eye, silent threats such as stiffening, pupillary dilatation, and a closing mouth can be invisible.

+The videos discussed above, for instance, demonstrate body language that indicates the children may be in danger:

  • The pug yawns as the baby reaches for the cookie; in dogs yawning is a sign of stress or conflict
  • The sofa dog wakes to repeatedly lick the toddler's face; licking can indicate conflict and a wish for the toddler to walk away.

Both behaviors may precede a bite and doubtless, in many cases, they actually have, but those videos simply weren't posted.


+Parents mean well for both their children and pets, of course, but often lack the knowledge of canine behavior needed to recognize and avoid provocation.  We've all heard parents describe their dogs' impressive tolerance ("The baby can climb on him, pull his ears, and take food right out of his mouth...")  and wished that, instead,they enforced limits in interactions between the pet and child to avoid an accident.  After all, there really is no such thing as a "bombproof" dog.

+The first step toward teaching out children to be safe around animals is for parents to become educated.  Further, placing our kids in unsafe situations with their own pets makes them doubly unprepared to interact safely with non-family animals that may be less secure around children.

+Maybe we can all spread the word about appropriate and safe interactions with animals.  If we can prevent even one child from being bitten, and possibly to go on to develop a long term fear and distrust of animals as a result, it is worthwhile!

Two excellent references for safety materials to share with the family are:

Family Paws (familypaws.com)

Doggone Safe (doggonesafe.com)

Thanks to Todat's Veterinary Practice and Ilana Reisener, DVM, PhD, Dipolmate ACVB for the above information.

Next: Crossed Signals: Dogs to Humans


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