It is beautiful to watch our four-legged family members comfortably interact with our children. For some pets, this comes naturally; for others, it takes time and effort to build trust between them and the children. It is essential to be able to read the behavior of our dogs and cats to facilitate that bond between children and their furry friends. If we cannot recognize and respond to signs of fear/stress/anxiety in our dogs and cats, the children are at a higher risk of becoming victims of a bite or a scratch.
The images below illustrate the body language exhibited by dogs and cats when they are stressed and uncomfortable. Some of these signs are very subtle – tense, pursed lips to widened eyes. Canine images provided by Vet Behaviour Team. Feline images provided bydoggiedrawing.net.
Most pets experience stress and anxiety during changes in the environment – such as:
- New baby
- Baby learning to crawl
- Baby developing fine motor skills/ learning how to pet
- New housemate
- Large gatherings
It is always important to have direct supervision with children and animals, but it is especially important to provide close monitoring of animal stress and anxiety during early childhood development. If an animal is expressing any of the signs of stress illustrated above, while a baby is learning to crawl or walk, or a child is making direct contact with the pet; immediate removal of the pet from the presence of the baby/child is recommended. Distance will allow the pet to decompress and release the anxiety and tension naturally. The distance required to relieve stress may vary, ranging from breaking contact to out of eyesight. Some dogs will shake to release the tension; some cats will hide or jump on an elevated surface until they feel relaxed. Pets may rely on aggression (growling, snapping, hissing, or scratching) if they do not feel like they can leave the stressful environment – fight or flight!
Positive rewards (treats/praise) should be used anytime a pet is naturally showing calm relaxed behavior (listed below) around the baby/child. Over time, the pets will learn they are rewarded by expressing calm, relaxed behavior in the presence of the baby/child and, therefore, will naturally respond to the child with relaxed responses instead of fear/stress/anxiety.
Calm Relaxed Canine Behavior:
- Laying down with hips off to the side
- Laying down with head on the ground
- Relaxed facial muscles
- Relaxed ears
- Calm breathing – not panting
Calm Relaxed Feline Behavior:
- Laying down with limbs showing
- Still tail
- Relaxed ears
- Small pupils
Chances of bites or scratches in children can be reduced by recognizing early signs of stress in our furry friends, respecting their space during times of fear/stress/anxiety, and rewarding calm, relaxed behavior in the presence of the children.