In the days of our COVID-19 quarantine, families are spending more time together than ever, including our pets. While some pets welcome the extra attention, many aren’t as comfortable with these new arrangements, and just like people, even the most patient pets have their limits!
But unlike people, dogs and cats can’t easily verbalize that they may need some space. In the chaos of parenting, pandemic or not, it can be easy to miss when our pets are trying to tell us they’re uncomfortable or afraid. Kids can especially miss, misinterpret, or ignore our pet’s early warning signs, too. And when that happens, these missed queues can lead to fear aggression.
Recognize the Warning Signs
Dogs and cats can grow tired of constant petting and playing, especially senior pets who may have arthritis or other ailments that make them more sensitive to touch. With schools, playgrounds, and sporting activities closed and parents trying to balance home life with working remotely, kids are turning to pets as a play outlet. Too many (often well-intentioned) games of chase, startle, wrestling, and grabbing can cause your pet stress. They may start retreating from the family, hiding, eating less, and avoiding interactions that were, before the sensory overload, once cherished. Other pets begin to defend themselves by growling, biting, and scratching. For your pet, these behaviors are just their way of communicating that they are afraid or in pain. But for our children, these unexpected reactions can be confusing, physically harming, and emotionally devastating.
Dogs: Early Warning Signs of Stress
- Dilated pupils (the black parts of the eyes become large and wide)
- Averting their gaze (won’t make eye contact with the child)
- Yawning and/or licking their lips or the air during an interaction with the child
- “Wet-dog shaking” after an interaction with the child
- Tucking of the tail (even if wagging)
- Panting when they are not hot or recently exercised
Dogs: Signs of Defensive Behavior
If the stressful interaction continues, dogs will show you they’re scared and/or stressed enough to bite or scratch by:
- Giving the “whale eye” (a side-eyed stare, showing the whites of the eye)
- Sudden freezing of all movement, especially when also giving the whale eye and/or growling
- Alarm barking and lunging with “hackles” up (even if the tail is wagging)
Cats: Early Warning Signs of Stress
- Dilated pupils (the black parts of the eyes become large and wide)
- Ears back
- Twitching tail
- Hiding or avoiding people
- Increased respiratory rate (more than 40 breaths per minute)
Cats: Signs of Defensive Behavior
If the stressful interaction continues, cats will show you they’re scared and/or stressed enough to bite or scratch by:
- Open mouth vocalizations (yowling, growling)
- Swatting with forearms
- Rapidly thrashing tail
- Puffed up tail
A Vicious Cycle
When we put our pets and children in situations that may provoke a bite, or cause fear aggression, the more often we will see it happen. The more often it happens, the more likely it is to happen again in the future, too.
Ultimately, this pattern can create a cycle of fear and self-defense. Our pets may even start to proactively respond to your child’s touch, communicating their stress or showing signs of defensive aggression before the child even gets close to them. Suddenly, or at least it feels sudden to us, it can seem like our dog or cat who once loved our child’s attention is now lashing out.
SOS: How to Help
It’s our job as parents to protect the bond between our children and our pets, keeping them both safe and happy with the other as much as possible. Here is our easy, three-step SOS strategy to keep that healthy relationship.
Supervision: When your child and pet are interacting, look and listen for warning signs that your pet may be scared, uncomfortable, or stressed. If you need to step in, don’t be confrontational, but re-direct your child’s attention to you or another activity so your pet can get a needed break. If you have a call or virtual meeting that you need to take in another room, use a nanny cam or baby monitor so your child knows you’re still supervising. This way you can also separate them from a stressful situation quickly if needed; remember, bites can happen in an instant.
Open conversation: Talk to your child about why you had to interrupt their game of chase with the dog or dressing up the cat for a tea party. Listen to their concerns, ask why they’re wanting to play with their pet, and empathize with how they’re feeling. Then, help them flex their empathy muscles. Explain why they may be scaring or hurting their furry friend and help them brainstorm a few ways to safely play with their pet. Check out a new children’s book by Dr. Emily Levine called Doggy Do’s and Don’ts to teach kids about dog body language and safe interactions. Most importantly, lead by example and demonstrate appropriate behaviors for your kids, too.
Separation: If you’re unable to supervise their play, physically separate your young child and pet. For dogs, put up a baby gate between where they tend to rest and where your child plays or give them some time in their crate with a long-lasting, frozen food-filled enrichment toy. For cats, make sure they have elevated resting areas or access to rooms through a cat door that your child can’t get to. Or, keep your pet with you while you need to step away.
Get ahead of the game by providing your child and pet with other outlets for physical, mental, and social stimulation, even if you’re doing the activities together! For example, have your kids do a scavenger hunt or play “I spy” while you take the dog for a walk. Or invite your pet over for some supervised, low-impact petting while you read to your child.
One of the best ways to foster a positive connection is to include your child in positive reinforcement-based obedience training! By giving your child and pet a safe and structured way to engage, they’ll both reap all kinds of benefits, including enhancing their bond and building trust, which are two of the greatest combatants against fear aggression. While squeezing an obedience session into your list of work and homeschool-related tasks for the day can be challenging, spending just 20 minutes together filling your child’s attention and exercising your pet’s brain and body will pay off!
Keep your Perspective and Take Action
Remember that a pet showing fear aggression isn’t trying to be mean or bad. They’re simply responding to a stressful situation in a way that any animal would when they feel they are in danger. Punishing these behaviors likely will increase their feelings of danger, may worsen the aggression, and can set a poor example for your child to imitate. If your pet shows fear aggression toward your child, try to remain as calm as possible while immediately separating them. Pick up your child or send your pet to their kennel or another room and shut the door. Then talk about what may have triggered your pet’s behavior with your child and make a plan to prevent it from happening again.
If you’ve already seen fear aggression or the signs of impending fear aggression from your pet, reach out to your veterinarian and/or a behavior professional right away. To find a behavior professional, search the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists database or the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants list of consultants.
Dr. Meghan Herron is a board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist and is Improving the lives of shelter dogs™ by serving as Gigi’s Senior Director of Behavioral Medicine Education, Research and Outreach. As a diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB), she is one of 70 veterinarians in the country, and one of only a few in the animal welfare world, with this unique specialization in both the medical and behavioral care for animals.