Ensuring a behaviorally healthy pet-child relationship - Veterinary Medicine
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Ensuring a behaviorally healthy pet-child relationship
Behavior problems in pets are never a picnic, but they become even more important to address when children are in the home. Pass these tips on to your clients who are introducing a baby into their home or adding a pet to the family.


The same goes for teaching children to leave pets alone when they are eating, sleeping, or quietly playing with toys (e.g. chewing a bone). Likewise, pets must be taught how to eat, sleep, and chew on toys by themselves and be provided with opportunities to do so. Usually this means getting the pets (most often dogs) comfortable being physically separated from people, such as in a crate or behind a gate. For many animals, once they learn that this separation keeps them safe from children's unwanted advances, it becomes a good thing.

Encourage parents to have realistic expectations. The adults in the house must bear the ultimate responsibility for a pet's care. Not all children are responsible enough or interested enough in pets to be really involved in activities such as feeding, grooming, walking, and cleaning up after them. Likewise, not all pets are comfortable enough with children to form their strongest bond with the children in the household.


When giving a behavioral treatment plan, note your specific recommendations in the pet's record instead of just writing "behavior advice given." As with any behavior problem, it is a good idea to follow up with owners about two or three weeks after the initial appointment. In a call or e-mail, ask the owners specific questions about the treatment plan implementation, such as how the dog is responding to the introduction to the stroller or if the cat has exhibited any housesoiling since the litter boxes were moved. This approach is much more likely to open up a dialogue and allow you to really help than just asking, "How is everything going?"


There may be situations when you or your clients think that a more in-depth approach is needed or that the problems are beyond your comfort level. This is the time for a referral to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. You can find a list of diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (acvb) at http://www.dacvb.org/. If no behaviorist is in your area, you can contact the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior through its Web site at http://www.avsabonline.org/ for information about veterinarians in your area who have an interest in behavior but may not be board-certified.

Although there may be a temptation to refer to trainers or other laypeople calling themselves behaviorists, this may not be your best option. If you do not refer to a boarded specialist, you may be held responsible in a situation of liability or malpractice. So if you refer to a trainer, you retain primary responsibility for the case and should follow up with the owners and be fully aware of the training techniques being used.


In some situations, no matter whether your clients have just introduced a baby into their home or just added a pet to the family, if serious behavior problems arise between the pets and the children, rehoming or euthanasia may be the best or only option. Although these are unfortunate situations for the pet, in some cases there is no reasonable way to manage the level of supervision or separation that would be required to keep the child safe. This may be because of a pet's inability to cope with separation, a child's inability to follow instructions involving the pet, or an adult's inability to maintain a safe environment. It can be especially difficult to achieve the proper balance between what is needed to keep everyone safe as well as happy when the pets have multiple behavior problems, such as fear or aggression issues and separation anxiety.

Most owners would prefer to rehome their pets than to contemplate euthanasia. Often, these animals make wonderful pets in child-free homes. This may be possible for pets that only have issues with infants or children and no other behavior problems. However, owners should be aware that truly child-free homes are often hard to find. Depending on the level of risk to children, child-free may not just mean no children living in the home but may also mean no visiting children (e.g. grandchildren) and no children in the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that appropriate homes may not exist for some of these pets. In those situations, euthanasia should be sensitively discussed. If pets are extremely fearful or anxious around strangers or if a dog has severe separation anxiety, the options of rehoming or separating from the child may be deleterious to the animal's welfare. In these situations, euthanasia is not a matter of convenience but takes into account human safety, the stress that all family members—human and nonhuman—experience, and the pet's quality of life. ?

Laurie Bergman, VMD, DACVB
University of California Veterinary Medical Center
San Diego Behavior Service
10435 Sorrento Valley Road, Suite 101
San Diego, CA 92121


1. Duxbury MM, Jackson JA, Line SW, et al. Evaluation of association between retention in the home and attendance at puppy socialization classes. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2003;223:61-66.


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