Ask Faith: Advice on dogs around toddlers, and on cats who need to knead

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Orange tabby and white cat on an orange blanket-covered piece of furniture
Best Friends co-founder shares tips on how to help dogs be more comfortable near toddlers and on cats who won’t stop kneading.
By Faith Maloney

Editor’s note: Faith Maloney, one of the founders of Best Friends Animal Society, consults on various aspects of animal care at the Sanctuary. In the early days of Best Friends, she started Dogtown and spent much of the day involved in the direct care and feeding of the animals. She’s also a frequent contributor to Best Friends magazine. The following advice was originally published in her Best Friends magazine column, “Ask Faith.”

Photo by Lori Fusaro

Help for a dog who gets too excited around toddlers

Dear Faith:

My sweet six-year-old dog, Summer, is friendly and loves playing with other dogs and warms up to people after a few minutes. We have new nieces and nephews in our family and when Summer met them as babies, she licked them and was not bothered.

Now that they are starting to walk, however, she seems anxious around them. She’s not aggressive but does try to chase them a bit and has barked when they approached her.

We keep constant focus, of course, on both Summer and the child whenever they are in the same space, so both parties are safe, but I would love for them to co-exist without fear that the child might get hurt, and I hate the thought of Summer being anxious or scared in her own home. Any suggestions?

-Dog Mama

 

Dear Dog Mama:

Being around toddlers can be a challenge for dogs. As tiny humans become mobile, they move in unexpected and weird ways (from a dog’s perspective). Toddlers are unstable and fall randomly. They don’t know that they should not pull the dog’s hair, ears, tail or other body parts, and sometimes they stick their fingers in the dog’s eyes, nose or mouth.

In addition, they are at eye level with the dog and often stare. In dog body language, staring is a precursor to an aggressive response, so the dog may interpret the toddler’s innocent stare as threatening.

[Dog and Baby: Introducing a Pet to a Newborn]

At this stage of the toddler’s development, it may be best to make sure Summer has a safe place to be away from the child, such as a crate with a door (if Summer has been trained to enjoy being in a crate) or a separate room with a door.

Look for signals that Summer is becoming uncomfortable and needing a break, such as her mouth closing tightly, her movement becoming stiff and slow, lip licking, paw lifts and frequent shake-offs. When she is showing these signals, give her a break by putting her in her safe place.

When Summer is in the same room as the child, she should be on leash. Offering her tasty treats when she looks at the child will help create a more positive emotional response to the child’s presence. You, as her trusted person, should be the one offering the treats, not the child. Make certain to reward her for any good choices she makes — choosing to walk away instead of chasing the child, for example.

As long as Summer doesn’t have a traumatic experience with the toddler, she may become more comfortable as the toddler grows, becomes more stable on her feet and is more capable of having appropriate interactions with Summer.

 


 

Photo by Molly Wald

Solutions for never-ending kneading

Dear Faith:

I have a problem with Coral, my three-year-old female calico. She’s a great cat, except for one thing. When she lies on me when I am in my chair, she kneads me constantly. I pull her paws away or I put her down, but she comes back and starts kneading all over again.

[Cat Behavior Modification and Counter-Conditioning]

My right arm and shoulder are full of scars from her claws. I have a groomer clip her claws regularly and I put a towel on my shoulder, but her claws poke through. I do love to hold her; it is comforting to me until she starts kneading. How can I get her to stop?

-Kneading Some Relief

 

Dear Kneading:

Kneading is a normal activity for cats, and they do it for several reasons. It can be a comforting behavior learned while nursing as a kitten, a way to show you that she’s relaxed or a method of marking territory, because cats’ pads have scent glands. Whatever Coral’s reason, be assured that she is content and happy with you; however, I understand how uncomfortable kneading can be. To decrease your discomfort and injuries, here are some ideas:

  • Since the nail trimming is not doing the trick, try applying Soft Paws to her nails. Go to softpaws.com to learn more.
  • Keep a thick blanket or cat bed handy. Place it on your lap before letting her jump onto your lap for snuggle time.
  • If that isn’t working, redirect her, using treats, onto a pet bed or blanket next to you, so that you can pet and praise her while she kneads.
  • It sounds like the towel you put on your shoulder wasn’t thick enough to prevent injury. Try a thick, dense blanket instead.
  • If you are not familiar with clicker training for cats, maybe you could do a Google search and find some instructions on using a clicker to redirect a cat’s attention to a new location.
Photo courtesy of Ann Hepworth

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This article originally appeared in Best Friends magazine. You can subscribe to the magazine by becoming a Best Friends member.