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Keeping Kids Safe Around Animals 

click to enlarge Dr. Anja Wurm
  • Dr. Anja Wurm

In the summertime, animals are everywhere. Whether it's frogs and garter snakes in your backyard, baby goats at a local farm, or a new puppy at a friend's house, children cross paths with critters on a regular basis.

Dr. Anja Wurm, a small-animal veterinarian at Full Circle Home Veterinary Care in Vergennes, offers tips on teaching kids to avoid injuries by reading the animals they're most likely to encounter in their daily lives.

KIDS VT: What are some general guidelines for keeping kids safe around animals?

ANJA WURM: My biggest concern is about being bitten or scratched. The first thing I always tell kids is, don't assume that the way you treat your own dog or cat is the way you can treat anybody else's dog or cat. You can roll your own dog over, touch his ears and look inside his mouth because he knows you. The same with your cat. You can pick your kitty up and walk around with him, but another person's cat may react very differently.

KVT: How should children be taught to approach an unfamiliar animal?

AW: With a toddler, let the owner bring the dog or cat to the child. Have the child sit on a couch quietly and let the dog or cat initiate contact. The owner should be present at all times because toddlers can be so unpredictable. One second they're gently petting the animal, and the next they're grabbing a clump of hair.

KVT: What about with older children?

AW: With kids 5 and up, I recommend they stay still, put their hand out and let the animal come to them. They should talk to the animal in a soft, quiet voice, not a high, squeaky voice, because that can rile the animal up. There's a lot of animal language that you can learn to read.

KVT: Like what?

AW: For a dog, look at its tail. If it's wagging, that's a good sign. If it's tucked between its legs, that's a bad sign. Look at its eyes. If they're making eye contact, that's a good sign. If you can see the whites of his eyes and he's looking away from you, that means he's not sure about you and would rather leave the situation. Look at the fur. If the hair around the back of the neck is up, that's a sign he's nervous but not necessarily aggressive. Watch the ears. With a dog with ears that point up, like a German shepherd, if the ears are pinned back, I'd be much more cautious than if the ears are up and curious. It's the same with flat-eared dogs, although it's a bit harder to see on them.

KVT: Does the same go for cats?

AW: With cats, if the tail is wagging, that's not a good sign. That means it's nervous and you shouldn't approach it.

KVT: Any rules with smaller pets?

AW: It's simpler with "pocket pets" or small animals, such as guinea pigs and hamsters. If it comes to you, that's generally a good sign that it wants to be held and petted. If it runs away and hides, it doesn't want anything to do with you. I've never seen it, but some rabbits will growl at you, especially females.

KVT: What about mother animals and their young?

AW: Never go toward a mother's babies unless you have an adult with you because you have no idea how the mother will react. The mom could be great with her owner, but excited children coming toward her? Not good. A good rule of thumb is: leave mother and babies alone.

KVT: How about wounded animals?

AW: An injured animal will often have its ears tucked back, its eyes will be huge, its pupils will be dilated, you'll see the whites of its eyes and the tail will be tucked. Teach kids to leave injured animals alone and alert an adult.

KVT: What diseases can domesticated animals transmit?

AW: There aren't many diseases that will transfer from companion animals to humans. With dogs and cats, you should be wary of gastrointestinal parasites, such as tapeworms or roundworms, which are transmittable to humans. If a child eats a roundworm egg, which come from the feces of an animal, the roundworm can hatch and the larvae can migrate to the eyeballs and cause blindness. It's very rare. I've never seen it but it's one of those things they pound into you in veterinary school.

KVT: Any advice for kids when they're around wild animals?

AW: With my kids, if we see a turtle on the side of the road, we'll always stop and move it — after making sure it's not a snapping turtle. They have a long tail and a head that can't retract into the shell. They'll hurt you. Painted turtles and red-eared sliders will almost always pee on you, so you should wash your hands afterward. Same with frogs and garter snakes. I want my own kids to explore nature and try to catch animals, but teach them to be gentle because the animals are so afraid. Imagine how scary it would be if this giant creature came and scooped you up. Always put them back where you found them. My kids always want to keep them overnight, but I don't let them. They can watch them in a terrarium for about an hour or so, but then they've got to let them go.


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