One of the most common reasons dogs and cats bite people is that they are afraid. The pet is trying to tell us to stay away but we humans keep pursuing them leaving the pet to use its best weapon the teeth. We humans often miss how the dog or cat is telling us to stay away, so we continue to try to pet them, or pick them up resulting in bites. There are ways to prevent these awful episodes and keep everyone safe.
First of all, all adults and children need to ask a pet owner 2 questions before petting a pet at all.
First question: Does he like to be petted? Not all pets like to be petted! Some may be generally timid, have had surgery or an ear infection or skin problem making it possibly painful to be petted. Ask first.
Second question: May I pet your pet? Even nice, affectionate pets may be scared that moment, a bit unsure, nervous, in pain from illness or the owner may be concerned about the person petting their pet as in a small child so always ask first.
Pet owners, get to know how your pet looks when they are first becoming afraid, unsure of a situation or timid. Often times we miss how a dog's tail goes a little down, or a cat's ears turn to the back which says "I don't know about this. Give me more space". What happens is humans come closer reaching out to touch without asking and the dog or cat is left to their last resort of saying "stay away" by biting. If you have a feeling your pet is getting scared, tell people to not pet your pet. You are not being mean or rude, you are being a responsible pet owner.
Members of the Animal Behavior Network can view the dog and cat body language presentations online. You can find out how to become a member of the Animal Behavior Network through our website. There are subtle changes in a dog's tail carriage and facial expressions that show fear, and cats can show signs that are hard for us to understand. Resources such as ABN are really helpful for pet owners to keep their pets behaving their best.
Supervise your children. Many people underestimate how much dogs and cats don't really like toddlers and young children's high activity and unpredictable ways. Children need to be taught how to be safe around pets by asking these 2 questions. You are not being a mean parent or grandparent to say no, you can't pet that animal. You are being a responsible guardian and safeguarding that child.
When you can pet an animal, avoid going over the top of the head. This area is near the eyes, and ears which are more sensitive than the shoulder or back of a pet. The best way to pet an animal is along the shoulders and upper back in the direction of the fur. Letting a dog or cat sniff you first is also a good idea so they get an idea of who you are, and the owner can see how they feel about your smells.
If a dog is loose and comes towards you the best way to stay safe is to become a rock or a tree. Stand absolutely still with your hands at your sides, and do not look the dog in the eye. When you are sitting on the ground, roll into a ball covering your ears and face. Staying absolutely quiet is very boring and uninteresting to the dog so they are likely to leave you alone. If you run, you will be chased and very likely jumped on and bitten. Yelling or throwing something at the dog may make some dogs charge you and cause a lot of harm. When the dog is away, tell someone who can call animal control about the loose dogs. Even dogs you know act very differently off leash compared to on leash.
If you would like to find out more about bite prevention and other behavior issues, check out our pet library and behavior articles.
- written by Dr. Sally J. Foote