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“Rufferee” between Kids and Dogs

By Scott Hamilton, MD
August 20, 2021
Hamilton Blog Headshot Updated 12.21.21

This week’s guest columnist is Caitlin McDaniel, MD, Family Practice Resident at Ochsner University Hospital & Clinics.

Buster and I were kind of littermates. We were both puppies, him a six-week-old Dachshund, me a nine-month-old human. We grew up playing and napping like siblings. When I was three, I wanted to play with Buster while he was eating. He growled as I reached out. When I didn’t understand, he snapped at my hand. Fortunately, he didn’t bite me, but I learned how he said “stop.” At Ochsner Lafayette General’s Pediatric Emergency Area, I see kids who aren’t so lucky not to get bit.

The offending pooch is often a family pet; the kid a baby or toddler. Many times, the parents say, “Our dog is never aggressive!  I just stepped out of the room and then heard crying and barking!” Infants and toddlers are learning the world around them, which involves grabbing, pulling and tasting everything, including Fido. Toddlers can move quickly and unexpectedly, two things that also scare dogs.  Sometimes children lean in to kiss the dog like parents kiss them, and the nervous dog snaps at their faces.

Unfortunately, children don’t have skin as tough as dogs’ either. Canine pack mates snap at each other without doing harm. Human skin gets more easily torn by dog teeth. And the dog doesn’t know the difference between humans and dogs. Family dogs perceive themselves and the family humans as fellow pack mates—with equally tough hides. Thus Dr. Hamilton’s advice: don’t get a dog until your kids are over five, when children can learn how to behave safely with Rover. If you must have a dog before then, be vigilant!

Just like dogs think that people are part of their dog pack, many people treat their dogs like fellow humans, too. Social media is flooded with “fur babies” eating, sleeping and even dressing up with the family. One dog who won’t be anthropomorphized: Dr. Hamilton’s feisty little poodle Milou. When Dr. Hamilton sits down to eat, Milou eats from his food bowl too, just like he’s family. But when squirrels invade the yard, Milou’s all dog, leaping out the back door and yapping his little head off.  Accompanied by choice words from Dr. Hamilton’s back fence neighbor.

The problem with treating dogs like people is that with little kids, Fido doesn’t treat kids like the owner “alpha dog,” with deference to the boss. They treat children like fellow “low dogs” on the pack totem pole; fair game to nip at and bite. When dogs bite children, we worry about scarring and infection.

Dogs can carry three infections that threaten children (and adults). They have bacteria in their mouths that require antibiotics to prevent. Thus, thoroughly wash any dog bites and get seen. Dogs can also transmit life-threatening tetanus or rabies. So, kids also need up-to-date tetanus vaccination and sometimes a rabies vaccine if the dog could be a carrier.

Finally, if the dog bites the kid in the legs or butt, scarring’s not a worry. But if the child is bitten in the face, that sometimes requires surgery to minimize disfiguring scars. No matter how well behaved or trained Fido may be, kids need constant adult supervision with pets. Dogs don’t have to be aggressive or rabid to bite a child; they’re just being dogs!

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