Dogs and Babies Don’t Mix: A Catholic Perspective

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Dogs and Babies Don’t Mix: A Catholic Perspective

Dogs and Babies Don’t Mix: A Catholic Perspective

Truly, dogs are part of the glory of God’s creation. They are “man’s best friend” when everyone else is gone and Jesus seems far away.  But what is the best role of a dog in a family?  As a pediatrician, I am not sure there is a good role for a dog in a family once you have accepted God’s call to parenthood of babies and young children.  I am well aware this is a highly contraversial statement.  But please, read on, and you will understand my perspective.

I recently cared for a nine-month-old baby girl who came to our emergency room with a dog bite that had ripped her face and scalp into pieces.  As soon as I entered the room her father’s first words were, “It wasn’t the dog’s fault.”  He went on to explain how this crawling infant had provoked the dog.  I spent a long time talking to this nervous father and crying mother about dog bite prevention, and I reported the situation to animal control and the local police.  The parents assured me that this infant would never be around this dog again.  A few months later this same infant came back to our emergency room with another dog bite to the face, from the same dog.

I wish I could say that this was an unusual story, but it’s not.  While the plastic surgeon was sewing up this infant’s face, we exchanged dog bite ER stories.  Most notably, he sewed up one woman’s dog bite to the face only to read in the newspaper that she had been killed by her dog a few months later.   The ER nurses also had plenty of dog bite stories to share.

What makes these stories so amazing is the consistent denial from dog owners that “man’s best friend” can be an enormous risk, especially to young children.  While sitting in the ER with their bitten child, dog owners have told me, “He’s really a very friendly dog,” and “he’s never bitten anyone before.”  Usually, there is a sentiment that the dog was provoked by the child and therefore the dog is not at fault.

There are almost five million dog bites every year in the United States and nearly one million require medical attention, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  There were 31 fatal dog attacks in the United States in 2011, including a 15-day-old infant.  You can read their stories at www.dogsbite.org.  Children under ten years of age are at particular risk of dog bite.  Most dogs bites are from dogs known to the victim, owned either by the victim’s family or neighbor.

Here are a few key things you can do to prevent dog bites:

  1. Never, ever put an infant or toddler on the floor with a dog.
  2. Be sure that dogs cannot access children, especially infants, while they are sleeping.
  3. Even if you do not own a dog, teach children age appropriate interactions with dogs.  When teaching children how to approach a dog, always be sure a dog is leashed and under an adult’s full control.
  4. Teach children never to put their face at a dog’s level.
  5. Do not approach an unfamiliar dog, even if it looks friendly.
  6. Do not run from a dog or scream.
  7. Remain motionless (e.g., “be still like a tree”) when approached by an unfamiliar dog.
  8. If knocked over by a dog, roll into a ball and lie still (e.g., “be still like a log”).
  9. Do not play with a dog unless supervised by an adult.
  10. Immediately report stray dogs or dogs displaying unusual behavior to an adult.
  11. Avoid direct eye contact with a dog.
  12. Do not disturb a dog that is sleeping, eating, or caring for puppies.
  13. Do not pet a dog without allowing it to see and sniff you first.

When a dog bites a crawling baby or excited toddler, whose fault is it?  Dog owners are quick to say it wasn’t the dog’s fault, as evidenced by my stories above.  And they are right, it wasn’t the dog’s fault. The dog was being a dog, and the toddler was being a toddler.  Was it the owner’s fault for not controlling their dog, or the parent’s fault for not supervising the child?

Our law says that it’s the owner’s responsibility to control their dog.  As a pediatrician, it’s my best professional opinion that dogs and young children just don’t mix, and I think parents have a responsibility to keep their young children away from dogs.  Even “good” dogs bite and can kill, and it is a parent’s job to keep dogs and young children separate.  I know this is a highly controversial subject, especially for dog lovers. But as parents, we go to extremes to protect our children.  We’ve stopped using baby walkers and drop-sided cribs.  Playground safety regulations get tighter every year.  So why would you expose your child to the risk of a dog bite?

Some parents do understand.  I recently took care of two sisters who had been attacked by a family dog.  I started to explain to the parents that I am required to make a report to animal control.  “Don’t worry,” they told me, “the dog’s already dead.”

 

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Copyright 2012 Kathleen Berchelmann, M.D. 

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10 Comments

  1. No offense, and I assume I will get some heated replies to this, but the question ” So why would you expose your child to the risk of a dog bite?” for me was directly answered by the statements previous to it.

    I understand — I really do — the need for all of these safety warnings, but there is really a point where we simply have to live and accept that risk is a part of life. As a new mother, I have been bombarded by safety warning after safety warning. But rather than obeying every stricture, my husband and I have instead decided to take each into consideration, pray, and then do what we feel is best — which has meant letting our newborn sleep on his tummy, covering him with a blanket sometimes while he’s sleeping, occasionally cosleep, go outside for a few minutes without sunscreen, and a few other “no-nos.”

    Would I be filled with guilt if something happens? Of course. That’s part of parenting: second-guessing our decisions. But I’ll also recognize that what happens is part of God’s plan, and we take the suffering with the good times. I do my best for my child and want for him to be safe, but I also know living in bubble wrap is not best for him, either.

    • Dear Kat,

      The barage of orange waringing sings on any infant product is overwhelming. All parents break the “rules” sometimes. I do suggest, however, that you take into consideration degree of risk when determining which “no-no’s” you will accept.

      For example, In the United States, SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) is the major cause of death in infants between 1 month and 1 year of age, with most deaths occurring between 2 and 4 months of age. 2500 infants still die every year in the United States from SIDS. Please consider this fact befor choosing to let your baby sleep on his/her back. Please see my prior article her on CatholicMom.com on safe sleeping for details. My own nephew of SIDS 14 years ago while belly sleeping. You may also be interested in my article “The ABC’s of Safe Sleeping” on my own website http://www.CatholicPediatrics.com.

      You have to weigh risk/benefit with any decision. Is the risk of death of your child from dog bite worth the benefits of dog ownership? Is the risk of death by SIDS worth the ease of putting your baby to sleep on his/her belly?

      Congratulations to you and your husband on parenthood.

      Warm Regards,

      Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD
      Washington University School of Medicine
      http://www.CatholicPediatrics.com

      • Dear Dr. Kathleen,

        I actually have already read your article on safe sleep; it was part of that period of prayer and thoughtful consideration I mentioned my husband and I do before breaking the “rules.” And that, I think is truly the Catholic perspective on all issues relating to weighing the risks involved in parenting children — that while we should inform ourselves of the statistics and the degrees of risk, the decision is ultimately about (a) the health and condition of the child, (b) the involvement, awareness, and situation of the parents, and (c) God.

        What you presented, rather, was a pediatrician’s view. A Catholic pediatrician’s view, admittedly, which takes into consideration that the child should always be paramount to the pet, but still only a general, blanket warning that here is a risk and here is a pediatrician’s recommendation on the best mode of averting that risk. There are also many benefits to having a dog in the house: for instance, the statistically lower risk of the development of allergies, access to responsibility training, and the ability for a child to learn how to properly behave around animals (which, unless we keep a child always within a pet-free home, will eventually become an issue).

        Again, though, statistics and anecdotal evidence are wonderful for helping us discern the best way to live and avoid risk, but nothing should take the place of prayer and an understanding that in the end it is not us who have full control.

  2. The root cause of the problem is that people have forgotten that dogs are exactly that: DOGS. They are animals that are meant to be our pets. As much as I like my dog, I don’t refer to him as “part of the family” as many people do. Since people aren’t having children anymore, their DOGS have become their children, and they forget, that dogs are still animals, with animal instincts. Dogs used to occupy their proper place in the pecking order of a family….the bottom! But now peoples perspectives on the sanctity of life seem to be so messed up that they are making the pet equal to their child and in this article it seems, that sometimes they are thought higher of than the child. Sad.

  3. Thank you for bringing our attention to the facts. This is definitely a subject that I have mixed feelings about. We currently have a 12-year-old collie who is a candidate for “dog sainthood.” My now 3 1/2-year-old son was holding her leash and walking down the sidewalk with her (and me with him) at 13 months old. She has been good for him in many ways. I now also have a 13-month-old son who is just starting to walk on his own and developing an interest in the dog. If she happens to be in the same room, it is only under supervision. Otherwise, we have arranged it so that she has her space in the house and the kids have theirs for the sake of all of them. We will have her until she takes her last breath…and then have to talk about an appropriate time to have a dog again. There is much to be said about really understanding the temperament of the breed(s) of dog that you have as well.

  4. We had a wonderful dog when my son was born. He was sweet and gentle with everyone EXCEPT near his food bowl. Anyone could in the family could take the food right out of his mouth EXCEPT the “baby” (he is now 12). The dog started to be protective of his food and growl at the little one. We tried numerous measures recommended by dog training professionals. One day, however, our son was playing on the floor and happened to be near the food. The dog grabbed him by the face. We were extremely fortunate that there was only 2 very small scars under our sons chin. The dog was put down. If I had gotten my hands on him before he ran into his kennel, I would not have had to pay to put him down. Dogs are animals. We love our pets, but they do not come before the people in the house.

    • That was your fault. if you knew the dog was protective of his food, you should hav etaken care that the child could not get near that food. You blamed the dog for yourown shortcoming in failing to exercise proper care.

  5. Well said, I completely agree. My small terrier (whom we’ve had for 10 years) bit my son in the face when he was a toddler, completely UN-provoked, it was out of no where. Thank God it was a minor bite with just a few puncture wounds. Ever since then, he is now an “outside” dog, both of our dogs are now. Access to the mud room and a huge fenced yard, but no longer do they reside in the home with the humans.

  6. I’m with HM — priorities need to be in place. I’d no sooner say “people with babies shouldn’t have dogs” than I’d say they shouldn’t have cars, water heaters, bath tubs, own a farm, etc. But just as I take fanatical measures to keep my children safe from cars, I do the same with dogs.

    When our eldest was a toddler, we could see that trouble was brewing between him and our very friendly, relaxed dog — the boy was just too energetic and curious. The dog moved to a new home with no toddlers. Eight years later, with all kids old enough to learn how to behave with a dog, we adopted an older dog from the local shelter, and it’s been great.

    But if we’re blessed with another baby, be assured dog and baby do not mix, any more than truck-and-baby mix.

  7. Why would you say dogs are “God’s creation”? Dogs are NOT God’s creation, they were created by man from wolves and, as such, have no place in the natural order of things. Dogs — unlike the wolves from which they are descended that kill only for food or out of fear — chase down and kill other animals solely for the fun of killing. Dogs are the sadistic serial killers and mass murderers of the animal kingdom and God would NEVER have created something as destructive as a dog. Anyone who wants to know what God thinks of dogs should read Rev. 22:15.

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