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Dogs - risks to your child's health

A pet dog can help your child's development. But dogs also pose risks, including biting and infections. Find out how to keep your child safe around dogs.

Owning a dog can help your child's social and emotional development. Having a dog also promotes a healthy lifestyle. But for all the benefits, it is worth knowing that all dogs can be unpredictable around children. Dogs can also carry germs that could make your child sick. Make sure your child is up to date with their vaccinations.

No dog is 100% safe. Your child's safety is a priority.

Supervise your child around dogs

Always supervise your child around a dog:

  • no matter how well you know the dog
  • whether your child is asleep or awake
  • inside or outside the home

Incidents involving children and dogs usually happen in the home. They can happen when a child approaches a dog during play, eating or when the dog is sleeping.

You can help avoid these incidents and reduce the risk of dog bites to children by:

  • watching your children closely
  • never leaving your child alone with a dog
  • teaching children to be gentle and how to safely interact with dogs

Related topic

Dogs - teaching your child to be safe

Ask your vet for advice about dogs

Your vet or veterinary nurse can give you valuable advice about dogs.

They can help you with:

  • choosing a dog
  • preparing your dog for the arrival of a new baby or child
  • looking after your dog and controlling it
  • child safety and health around dogs

Risks to babies and children when sleeping

Never leave a baby or small child alone with a dog, even if they're asleep. Dogs can confuse newborn babies with toys. Always keep babies out of a dog's reach.

Dogs have attacked children and babies for no apparent reason. This has sometimes happened when the child is sleeping. The attack can lead to serious injury or death.

Do not allow your dog to use any of your child's equipment or cot for play, relaxing on or sleeping.

If you are expecting a baby

If you are expecting a baby, it is important to prepare your dog for the new arrival. This is also true if you are bringing a child to live with you. Contact your vet for advice on what to do.

Watch the Dogs Trust's advice on preparing your dog for the arrival of your new baby.

Risk of dog biting your child

Most dog bites are from a dog known to the child. Even the most gentle dog has the potential to bite.

Always watch your children around dogs. If you can’t watch them, put the dog in a safe place away from your children. An adult should always go with a child who is taking a dog for a walk.

Even though dogs can be trained they still have instinctive behaviours. It does not matter how well you know the dog. Young children can unintentionally provoke the dog who may snap and injure the child. This could be the first time you have ever seen your dog snap.

Dogs may bite for no apparent reason:

  • during play - they may get over-excited and nip as they would with another dog
  • when eating - they may bite while trying to protect their food
  • if surprised or woken up when sleeping
  • if provoked, teased or annoyed

Help avoid risks of dog bites

When your child is able to understand, teach them that dogs may signal their stress.

Before biting, a dog may:

  • look away from the source of stress
  • move away
  • stare
  • lift their lip
  • growl
  • snarl
  • pretend bite
  • lunge forward

Do not expect your child to take on board your safety advice. Young children do not understand danger. They are very likely to get confused about a dog's body language. That is why close adult supervision is important.

Don't punish a dog for signalling its stress. It's simply trying to warn you.

Children under the age of 5 years are most at risk of dog bites.

If a child is bitten or scratched by a dog

If your child is bitten or scratched by a dog, stay calm. Move the child to a safe area, Reassure them. Confine the dog if it's safe to do so.

If the wound is bleeding a little, or if the bite has broken your child's skin and is not bleeding:

  • wash the area under warm running water
  • dry the wound
  • cover it with a plaster

Bring the child to your GP, even for small wounds, as dog bites often get infected. Your GP will check the wound. They may give your child a tetanus booster injection. They may also prescribe antibiotics.

If your child has more serious wounds

If a dog has attacked your child and caused serious wounds:

  • call 999 or 112 for an ambulance
  • apply pressure to the wound with a sterile dressing or a clean cloth
  • keep the injury raised above heart level, if you can – this will help slow bleeding
  • do not give the child any food or water

Talk to your GP if your child's wounds:

  • do not heal properly
  • look infected
  • are weeping, red, swollen or feel hot to touch
  • are worrying you

Dog attacks must always be reported to the Gardaí. Your local authority dog control service must also be told.

Dogs you don't know

Teach your child to be careful around dogs they don't know. Teach children to only approach a dog when its owner is there. Always ask for permission from the owner.

It is not always safe for your child to approach dogs on holidays or outside of Ireland. This is because they can carry infections, like rabies, that are not present in Irish dogs.

Related topic

Dogs - teaching your child to be safe

Risks of infections from dogs

There is a small risk that your dog could carry a disease, bacteria or virus that is harmful to you and your child.

Talk to your GP and tell them you own a dog if you or your child:

  • develop diarrhoea, vomiting or an upset stomach
  • notice a ring-shaped rash that is reddish and may be itchy
  • have a skin irritation that is not normal

Talk to your vet if you notice any signs of illness or skin irritation in your dog. Always keep children away from a sick dog.

Diseases and infections that dogs can carry include:

  • parasitic worms - like hookworms and tapeworms
  • fleas
  • lice
  • mange (scabies)
  • ticks
  • ringworm - a fungal infection of the skin
  • toxocariasis -can cause serious illness, including organ damage and eye disease

Ticks are tiny creatures that look a bit like spiders. They can attach to the skin of animals and humans. Some ticks can spread a bacteria, causing Lyme disease.

Dogs can also carry diseases and parasites that cause diarrhoea and vomiting.

These include:

  • cryptosporidium
  • giardia
  • salmonella
  • campylobacter

Keep clean around dogs

Make sure you and your children wash your hands carefully after any contact with a dog or their:

  • poo
  • saliva (drool)
  • food
  • water bowls
  • toys

Keep your dog away from your baby or child's toys, nursery and any other child equipment.

Keep your dog's food, feeding utensils, toys and any other dog equipment out of your baby or child's reach.

Keep your dog healthy

Keeping your dog clean and healthy will reduce the risk of them getting a disease or infection.

Your dog should:

  • be kept well groomed and clean
  • have its claws trimmed by a vet - this can protect children from scratches
  • have fleas, ticks and worms treated
  • be up to date with their vaccinations

Items for your baby can be dangerous to your dog. These include nappies and small toys. Keep them away from your dog.

Some foods are also dangerous for your dog. Chocolate is poisonous for dogs. Grapes, raisins, sultanas and currants can cause them to have kidney failure. Keep them out of your dog's reach.

Choosing a dog

When choosing a dog you need to make sure you choose the right animal.

They should be right for your family's circumstances and your child's:

  • health
  • age
  • developmental stage

Certain breeds of dogs are deemed dangerous due to their:

  • size
  • strength
  • original breed function
  • behavioural problems

If they have behavioural problems they will need a different level of care, control and supervision. Consider carefully whether you can provide this. Keep in mind your child’s safety and the safety of other children is always the priority.

The law and dogs - advice from Citizens Information

Page last reviewed: 28/06/2019
Next review due: 28/06/2022