It is SOLID MODERN SCIENCE that owning a pet can strongly benefit your overall health and well-being. I feel so fortunate in so many ways to have shared all my years but a couple with a pet in residence. Since having pets and interacting with them has always been part of my daily life, it's always been a curious thing for me to meet up with people who have "pet issues." It wasn't until I became a parent when I'd have some kids over for playdates and they (and often, their parents) would freak at the sight of our dog or cat that I realized how many people haven't had experience with companion animals, or their contact had been unpleasant. Sometimes I would find myself in the role of person-to-pet mini-therapist, gently explaining to the reticent kid or adult friend how to approach an animal in a safe and friendly way. It was very gratifying to see someone who previously would never think of getting near a dog or cat be able to relax and enjoy greeting and petting a friendly member of another species, so I thought I'd write up a little primer here for those who might benefit. These things may all seem incredibly obvious to pet owners, but if you aren't taught these things, how can you know? So...


RULE #1: ASK THE OWNER BEFORE APPROACHING ANY ANIMAL. This is very important. Some animals are not good with being handled or touched by strangers (or even their owners). Do not reach or walk towards an animal you don't know before confirming with the owner that it is OK. It's generally not a great idea to touch an animal that is running loose or tied up outside a store with no owner present. If you think an animal is lost, call your local pet control or shelter, or someone you know with a lot of animal experience.

RULE #2: DO NOT INTERACT WITH HYPER ANIMALS. Dogs in particular can get very excited when greeting people, and barking, jumping up, and even nipping are common behaviors. If you find yourself in this situation, be calm and back away until the owner regains control of the dog and it settles down. Do not yell or scream, and don't give the dog positive attention for bad behavior. Jumping up behaviors can be dangerous for little kids and older folks who may not be so steady on their feet.

RULE #3: DO NOT INTERACT WITH ANIMALS SHOWING NERVOUS OR DEFENSIVE BEHAVIOR: This seems like a no-brainer, but the signs of stress in an animal can sometimes be confusing. Growling, hair puffed up on the back, a steady stare and rigid stance are are signs of fight-or-flight response, but did you know that a twitching or wagging tail sometimes shows stress, too? Pay attention, and leave an unhappy pet alone.

RULE #4: ALWAYS OFFER A CONSERVATIVE FIRST GREETING, EVEN WITH THE NICEST PETS: Even a sweet animal can be quickly overwhelmed when it is touched too suddenly or in the wrong spots. Let the pet approach you first and sniff your legs, and give them some time to figure out who you are. Gently offer the palm or back of your hand for the pet to sniff, but don't hover or crouch over, and do NOT stare at the pet's eyes. Speak quietly and kindly; loud noises can instantly upset any animal. If this goes well, you can gently pet the animal on the side of the body or face, upper or mid back, or scratch behind its ears if it likes that (many animals do). Avoid petting the stomach or tail area unless you know the animal well -- these are areas of vulnerability to an animal and they can snap suddenly if they feel they are threatened. Don't walk behind any animal to pet it-- let it see you at all times. And don't pet an animal that is eating -- a lot of them DO NOT LIKE.

RULE #5: KEEP FACES AWAY FROM FACES: I take a conservative stance on this, although I know many pet owners love having their dogs or cats lick their faces. Keep an "alpha postion" when petting an animal; this is especially important for children. As tempting as it is to get right in the face of an animal 'cause they is so durn cute, it just isn't a good idea. It only takes a second to receive a bite from a stressed or spooked animal. Also, dogs and cats clean their excretory areas with the tongues. You do not really want dog or cat poop germs all over your face, do you?

RULE #6: FOR THE ALLERGIC, EASY DOES IT. Pet allergies can be as mild as a stuffy nose or itchy eyes, or as severe as hives and a blowout of the respiratory system, and often run in families, and those families often end up disliking all pets because they are associated with unpleasant physical symptoms. If your allergies are on the lighter side, remember that it is not the animal's fur that is causing the reaction; it's the pets saliva, dander, or urine that may be on the fur. If you would like to greet a pet, keep your face as far away as you can, don't vigorously pet the animal, and remember to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Outdoors is better than indoors, too! Allergic people often complain that dogs and cats "know" it and specially come over to them just to be annoying. This is sort of true, because most housepets are intensely interested in anyone in the home. If you don't offer them at least a short greeting, some are just compelled by curiosity to get it out of you one way or another!

For all the warnings above, I want to repeat that it is a very good thing, even if you just plain don't dig cats or dogs, to know how to interact with animals just for safety's sake alone. I can't tell you how many times I've seen children scream at animals or be too rough or pull at tails, and that is dangerous. Adults, too, need to know how to handle themselves around animals they may encounter, because we are a pet-loving world, and they are just everywhere you go. So, good luck and good petting!