With school holidays upon us and children spending more time at home, parents who are the owners of cats or dogs should now ensure that their children understand how to interact safely with these animals.

According to veterinarian Dr Lloyd Kenda, of Valley Veterinary Centre, nearly 5 million people, often children, are bitten by animals each year around the world.

And children are often more vulnerable than adults. "Adults tend to be able to recognise when to leave a sleeping cat alone, or that taking a bone out of a dog's mouth is not a good idea. In Hong Kong, the number of dog bites is relatively low, but we can never forget the tragic news of babies mauled to death and the pictures of horrific scars to children's faces from dog bites. In nearly all cases, these could have been prevented."

He says it is important that children have a healthy respect for animals. "We can all get a bit complacent with our own pets and children. Thinking along the lines of, 'We have had him for years and he never bites.' This may be true, but he may have never been challenged by a toddler trying to take his food away. All pets have a mind of their own and can never be 100 per cent reliable."

Keeping pets with children is a risk assessment, Kenda says. "We weigh the risk of a bite or a scratch against the pleasure and fun of having the pet in the house for the children to grow up with. Some pets are so stoic in demeanour, that the risk factors are very low. On the other hand, keeping a fighting-breed dog with young children could be considered negligent as a parent."

For cat owners, having children in the house means most likely that the cat is not going to get as much undisturbed sleep as normal and this may impact its behaviour. Kenda says it is important to remember that cats not only bite, but have very sharp claws which can scratch deeply. "Wounds from cat bites or scratches can easily get infected. If your child is bitten or scratched, wash the wound with copious amounts of warm water and soap."

He says that adding antiseptics, such as iodine, will make little difference, other than making the wound sting even more. If the wound becomes hot, painful and swollen, consult a doctor.

To avoid cat attacks, his top tip is not to let children tease the cat, such as pulling its tail or its ears. Also never let them corner the cat as it may feel threatened and lash out. "Keep the nails trimmed and this will help your furniture, too."

Kenda says that dogs may attack children because they are often frightened by them. "A young child can be at the same eye level as a dog, often has a high-pitched squeal and has arms and legs flaying in all directions. This can terrify a dog that is not used to such a sight, so it may attack out of self preservation and fear."

The vet says that if a child is bitten by a dog and there is not much blood, wash the wound with lots of water and soap. "If there is significant bleeding apply a thick pressure bandage and go to a hospital."

Unfortunately, as a factor of size, most children are bitten on the face, Kenda says, which has obvious implications when the eyes are involved. "Never let your children play with a strange dog. Give the dog a chance to read the situation and familiarise themselves with the child. Additionally, never let kids approach a sick, sleeping or eating dog."

Common sense should prevail when mixing children and pets, the vet says. "All animals are different as are all children. Children with a healthy respect for all types of animals will have little chance of being a victim. However, this only applies to children old enough to have learned this respect." 

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