Kids Health

If you have a pet, you know how much fun it can be: watching little fish swim in a tank, seeing a dog catch a ball in its mouth, petting the pebbly, cold surface of a lizard's back, or designing a fancy maze for a hamster. Kids who like the outdoors can tell you how exciting it is to spot their favorite birds — and how stinky it can be when they get a sniff of their local skunk.

Animals can be great fun, but it's important to know how to be safe when you're with them. Both indoor animals and outdoor animals need to be treated kindly all the time. This means different things depending on the animal and the situation. With a wild animal, being kind may mean staying far away so the animal doesn't feel threatened and so you stay safe.

The Great Outdoors

Stepping outside can mean a world full of great animals to see — from squirrels in trees to birds in flight. In some parts of the world, kids may see slithery snakes, black bats, or even cool coyotes. And don't forget raccoons, skunks, and other critters that come out in some places at night.

The rule in the great outdoors is simple: Don't touch or go near an animal. Although some of these animals may look cool or even cute, leave them alone. These animals aren't like regular pets. They're not used to being around people and may bite or attack if you come near them. They also might have rabies.

Don't ever try to feed a wild animal. Bird feeders are OK, but other animals, even if they look hungry, shouldn't ever be fed. When it comes to these animals, it's better for everyone if you stay away and check them out at the zoo, on the Internet, on TV nature shows, or in books.

Playing Safely With Pets

Pets can't tell you if they're upset or scared, so they show you. They might do this by biting or scratching. To avoid bites and scratches:

  • Never bother a pet when it's eating or pull its food or water away.
  • Don't tease a dog or cat or pull its tail or ears.
  • Never bother a pet when it's sleeping.
  • Don't take a toy or bone away from a cat or dog or hold it out of reach of the animal.
  • Never try to get near a pet with its babies (like a cat with kittens or a dog with puppies). Animal mothers are very protective and will bite to keep you away.
  • When lifting a rabbit, hamster, guinea pig, or gerbil from its cage, do it slowly. Be sure to hold the animal underneath its belly.
  • Never pick up or hold a rabbit by its ears.
  • When pulling an iguana, lizard, snake, or other reptile from its tank, do it slowly and carefully. Then wash your hands right away because reptiles can carry bacteria like Salmonella on their skin.
  • Never stick your hand into a fish tank — most fish can't hurt you. But a few types of fish can and do sting if they get upset. The water also contains germs that could cause a skin infection.
  • If a pet looks sick or is injured, stay far away. An animal that normally loves to be petted and play may get very upset and even bite when it is feeling ill. Tell an adult so he or she can get help for the animal.

When you're at a friend's home, the same rules apply — plus one more. Always ask your friend if it's OK to pet or hold his or her pet. If your friend says OK, move slowly and be sure to let the animal sniff your hands first.

Woof! Woof! Safety Around a Strange Dog

Coming home from school and hoping you won't see the dog who always barks like crazy and runs around? You're not the only one. Kids often get scared of a dog they don't know, especially if that dog is loud and doesn't have an owner nearby. To keep your cool around canines:

  • Never pet or touch a strange dog, even if it runs up to you and seems like it might be friendly.
  • If a dog starts running toward you, don't run. Running away can make the dog want to chase after you — even if it doesn't want to hurt you, its instincts will tell it to chase.
  • If a strange dog approaches you, try to stand very still. This may be scary for a minute or two, but often the dog will become bored and walk away. If the dog tries to sniff you, let it sniff — this is its way of checking you out.
  • Walk away from a strange dog very slowly. Don't wave your arms around or make a lot of noise because these actions will only excite the dog. Look straight ahead and not into the dog's eyes.
  • If you are very afraid of a strange dog or a strange dog tries to bite or attack you, tell an adult as soon as possible. He or she can find the dog's owner.

A final word on felines (say: fee-lynes), also known as cats: Although most kids aren't as scared of strange cats as they are of strange dogs, it's still a good idea to stay away from cats you don't know. Never pet or touch a strange cat, even if it seems friendly.

Save your love for your own dogs and cats. You know they'll love you back!

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: September 2007

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