Keeping kids and pets safe during the holidays

You’ve been invited to a holiday party and everyone is so excited. There will be several families there, people you haven’t seen in ages. But before you go, talk to your kids about the possibility of pets.

Dog bites are the second most common childhood injury requiring a trip to the emergency department — and not something you want to deal with during the holiday season.

“Any time you are visiting someone else’s home, you want to prepare your children for the possibility of pets being around,” said Erika Janes, R.N., coordinator Safe Kids Louisville, a program led by Norton Children’s Hospital. “Even if your children have pets of their own, you want to make sure everyone is prepared and stays safe during the visit.”

Norton Children’s Hospital’s emergency department treats kids for all types of animal bites, especially those from dogs and cats. Most are not by vicious pets who were acting out of control. Regardless, preventing these encounters is the best form of protection you can provide for your children.

“The holidays are all about family, and if you are like me, your pet is a part of that family,” said Valerie Merrifield, Community Outreach Manager with the Kentucky Humane Society. “This is also a very chaotic time with lots of noise, food and unfamiliar hands petting your dog or cat. This could make for an unpredictable situation when it comes to having your pet mingling among your guests.”

Merrifield recommends teaching your children these tips before you arrive at the party:

  • Approach a dog or cat slowly. Walk, don’t run, toward the animal.
  • Extend your hand in the shape of a fist for the pet to smell before you touch the pet.
  • Watch the animal’s body language. For example, a dog who welcomes the affection may have a soft, wiggly body and lick your hand. If the dog is stiff or turns away, then you turn away too. If the dog walks away, then respect its wishes and let it be.
  • Finally, if the dog appears to welcome the affection and wants to be petted, then pet him on the back. This is the safest spot. Feet, tail and face are off limits. And no hugs.

“Hugs are totally off limits when it comes to unfamiliar pets,” Merrifield said. “Dogs and cats don’t hug each other the way humans do, so they may panic and react by scratching or biting.”

As a pet owner and host of the party, it is also your responsibility to manage your pet’s behavior. Take time when new guests arrive to “introduce” your pet and watch for your pet’s reaction. If you notice a rigid dog or the cat walks away, then explain to your guests that they should leave the pet alone.

Merrifield recommends when at all possible, keeping your pets in a separate room during holiday parties or visits with family and friends. This provides your pet with a safe, quiet environment while also preventing any mischievous behavior.

Also, while your guests are enjoying their dinner remind them not to feed your pet table foods. This eliminates any chance for biting or scratching, and also protects your pet from becoming sick.

“People food and pets don’t mix well,” Merrifield said. “By feeding your pet people food, they can quickly become sick with gastritis and may require an emergency trip to the veterinarian.”

Additional tips for protecting your pet this holiday season:

  • Watch the front door! If you have a door-dasher, a dog or cat that darts out the door at any chance they get, be sure to keep a watchful eye (or even a leash) on them as guests are coming and going.
  • Be sure to pick up ribbons, wrapping paper and any toy parts on the floor. Pets will be curious and try eating these items, which can cause internal blockage and sometime require surgery.
  • Table food or people food is off limits. But also watch for your pet sneaking into stockings, gift baskets, even purses left lying around. Things like chocolate, nuts and xylitol (sugar substitute used in sugarless gum and candy) can be poisonous to your pet.
  • Candles look pretty, but paws, tails and whiskers are in danger near an open flame. If you burn candles, be sure to keep them up high and out of reach, and where they cannot be knocked over accidently.
  • Plants and flowers are potential hazards for your pets. Eating holly and mistletoe can result in nausea and upset stomachs for dogs and cats, while lilies can induce kidney failure in cats.
  • Exercise your pets and give them extra attention, especially during busy times of the year. This will help them spend their energy wisely instead of being overly anxious when your guests arrive.


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