Kids and pets go hand in paw. The unyielding love that children and pets experience is reason enough to welcome a furry friend into your family. But, before you and your kids head out in search of a lifelong friend, teaching them about pet behaviors and body language is crucial. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 50% of all dog bites are experienced by children, and 26% of those bites require emergency room visits. Don’t let your child be another statistic—learn these five behaviors, and check out the resources listed at the end of the article to help your kids be pet-safe, pet-smart, and pet-ready.
#1. Dog: Chest down, rear end up, tail wagging
What this dog is telling you: “I’m ready to play!”
A happy dog who is ready to romp is obvious. This dog’s mouth will be open and relaxed, often with a floppy tongue hanging out the side. The tail is usually up and wagging, the eyes are open and alert, and the ears are perked but relaxed. Playful dogs will often roll around, unafraid to show their bellies. While these pets are obviously content, be cautious with an overly excited dog around small children, as they may unintentionally topple or scratch little ones.
#2. Cat: Lying down or sitting, eyes partially closed, tail calm
What this cat is telling you: “I’m relaxed and happy.”
Despite the fact that cats and dogs are both wildly popular household pets, cats are not small dogs, and their behaviors are vastly different. A calm, happy cat is often still and alert, but with a relaxed body posture. The eyes have a soft gaze, and the tail may move slightly, but not much. Cats are renowned for their independence, but they still seek attention, and bond with their owners. You’ll know a cat is looking for affection when they gently rub or bunt their head along your leg or hand, inviting you in for a cuddle. This behavior is a great opportunity for kids to learn where their cat likes to be petted or scratched—and where they don’t.
#3. Dog: Tail tucked, yawning, ears possibly pinned
What this dog is telling you: “I’m frightened, unsure, and uncomfortable.”
Anxious or fearful dogs may show intermediate signs that a child will find difficult to interpret. Generally, dogs who pace, yawn often, lick their lips, or avoid eye contact are frightened, and may react aggressively if provoked. Teach your kids not to approach dogs exhibiting these behaviors. Only adults should interpret the scenario, determine the source of the dog’s anxiety, rectify it, or, if possible, remove the dog from the situation. Fearful pups may quickly progress to an angry or offensive state, so time is of the essence.
#4. Cat: Ears pinned, tail flicking, back arched
What this cat is telling you: “I’m upset—don’t come near me!”
Once a cat begins curling up their body, to appear smaller, they clearly do not want to be seen. Some fearful cats will hide to escape perceived danger. Like dogs, cats who show this fearful behavior can quickly turn aggressive if they feel threatened. In this case, cats may arch their back, raise their hair, hiss, or attempt to swat or bite. These cats should absolutely be left alone, and again, an adult should survey the scene for the source of stress.
#5. Dog: Ears up or pinned, eyes staring, hair raised, teeth showing
What this dog is telling you: “I’m feeling threatened and unhappy—don’t approach!”
Kids need to learn immediately that approaching an unhappy dog is dangerous, and never OK. Teach your child that if they are confronted by an aggressive dog, they must remain calm and move quietly away, avoiding the dog’s direct gaze. Sudden movements, loud noises, or screaming could further provoke an angry dog, so discourage this behavior. If this situation occurs in your own home, teach your child to gently move to a designated safe place that the dog cannot access, and call for help.
At Westerville Veterinary Clinic, we understand that special child-pet bond. Help foster these unique relationships by setting your kids and pets up for success. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) provides helpful infographics regarding dog and cat body language. We suggest printing them out, and using them when you discuss pet body language and behavior with your children. If you need further resources or have questions, please contact us.