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I have said repeatedly on this blog, and I firmly believe, that children derive emotional and physical health benefits from pets. I believe that pets help children to learn patience and empathy. Studies have shown that children living with cats or dogs may be less likely to develop asthma, and that pet visits motivate hospitalized children to get well. Pets make wonderful friends and confidantes for people of all ages.

However, the intermingling of children and pets poses risks for both. Here are some guidelines for protecting your offspring and your furry pals.

Unhealthy pets can spread disease to people. Children are most at risk. The diseases range from ringworm to roundworm to rabies.

However, the key phrase in the above paragraph is unhealthy pets. The risk to children from healthy pets is very low. The first guideline for safe interactions between pets and children is therefore to confirm that your pet is free of parasites and disease. Your vet can check your pet for disease by performing a physical exam and running basic tests. Broad spectrum anti-parasite medications can be used regularly to protect your children–and your pet.

Pets occasionally bite or scratch children. I have noted that many child injuries occur when an unsupervised, poorly socialized pet interacts with an unsupervised, poorly behaved child. I therefore recommend that you properly supervise and socialize your pet, and that you properly supervise and socialize your child. It’s also a good idea to keep your cat’s nails trimmed.

Injury can be a two way street when pets and children mix. Last weekend at the emergency hospital I treated several pets who wound up hurt (accidentally, of course) when left with a child. One, a Yorkshire Terrier puppy, wiggled out of a five-year-old’s arms and broke her leg. I expect her to make a full recovery. Another, a Terrier cross, was not so lucky. A child was holding her leash and she broke loose near a busy street. I don’t need to tell you what happened next. The child was inconsolable. For the sake of your pet and your child, do not allow your child to handle your pet unsupervised until he or she is able to do it safely.

Countless other pitfalls exist. Large dogs can knock children over accidentally. Pets can steal potentially toxic (to them) foods from the hands of careless children. For the sake of both children and pets, exercise common sense and practice due diligence.

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