The Perils of Pointy Pets

Human-pet-companion relationships aren’t always safe for all parties

April 1, 2019 (published)
The chomping over the inside of my wrist got Nikolai quickly and unceremoniously dumped into his cage. It's a bit terrifying having a dinosaur try to do a cut down over significant blood vessels. Photo by Dr. Christy Corp-Minamiji.

Nikolai and I had a love spat a couple of months ago, and I’m still nursing the scars. Before you worry about me and my relationship, you should know that Nikolai isn’t a human partner but a not-quite-two-pound, adolescent 15-year old male cockatoo. Our conversation one morning took an ugly turn somewhere around a bend in the hallway.

Me: “Good morning! Breakfast time!”

Nikki: “Hello! Breakfast?”

Me: “Yes, breakfast. Come on.”

He climbed with deceptive docility onto my wrist. I only became suspicious as he craned his neck left toward the master bedroom looking for his other humans as we walked down the hall. Sure enough, as I turned right toward the kitchen, he leaned off toward the bedroom, trying to extend his wings and wriggle his feet free of my hand.

Me: “No. We are going to get breakfast.”

Nikki: “SQUAAAAWWWWKKKK!” *chomp* *flap* *chomp* *chomp*

Me: “Muffled swearing” *hemorrhage* *speedy deposit of cockatoo into large day cage*

Clearly, we need to work on conflict resolution.

A couple of bloody towels, bandages, and some antibiotic ointment later, I was sitting next to his cage telling him what a jerk he had been and how much I love him. He, meanwhile, still miffed about not being set free to explore the house and leave a trail of destruction in his wake, hopped around yelling, “STEP UP! STEP UP!,” which is one of his ways of being rebellious.

I wish I could declare a few parrot punctures to be the worst of my animal-inflicted injuries, but so far the tally rests at:

  • one broken hand (horse)
  • a couple of black eyes (one calf, one horse)
  • one cracked cheekbone (me plus horse)
  • weirdly tweaked knee (pony from hell)
  • some interesting bone remodeling on my shins (mostly cattle)
  • a few cat scratch scars
  • a sprained ankle (service dog, believe it or not)
  • miscellaneous claw and tooth scrapes and bruises (dogs, cats, heavenknowswhatelse)
  • random bumps and bangs from tripping over various pets,
  • a handful of concussions (several horses, one goat). At least that's what I recall. There may be more.
  • three hospital visits, but only one admission.

Hmmm….my relationship with animal-kind may not be as kind as I would like to believe.

Though my list may be on the extreme side, I’m not alone. Although animal companionship enriches our lives emotionally and even physically, our human-pet-companion relationships aren’t always safe for all parties.

study published in the JAMA Surgery journal showed an increase in fractures in people over 65 associated with walking dogs on leashes.

Wait…didn’t they tell us walking dogs was good for our health?

What about cats? Cats are safe, aren’t they? Surrrre… until you’re trying to go down the stairs while carrying a load of laundry, or you sit where they want to be, or you decide they need their nails trimmed, or…

Horses? Well, there is a reason most boarding stables in the United States of Litigation post prominent signs stating that horses are “inherently dangerous.”

Am I saying we should all stick with stuffies or pet rocks? No, don’t be silly. First, stuffies want to smother us in our sleep and rocks jump out at unsuspecting bare toes. Second, we love and need our animal companions. And they need our couches.

So how can we all live and skip and hold hands and paws and hooves and wings together in an injury-free utopia?

We can’t. But, there are ways to minimize risks.

  1. Learn to read animal cues: I’m good at reading dogs and horses, (no one understands cats), but as a relative bird novice (Nikolai and I are only four years into a long-distance relationship), I goofed with Nikolai. His initial demeanor was sweet, but he was less verbal than usual, indicating he was in “bird mode” and not “social little boy mode.” Dogs can often fool even long-time pet owners. A wagging tail does not always mean happiness and joy.

  2. Properly pair pet to person: Small, nippy dogs and elderly crotchety cats aren’t good playmates for children. Similarly, large breed bouncy dogs are hip fractures waiting to happen for older, medically frail, or physically unbalanced people. A highly strung young horse isn’t a good retirement hobby, and parrots…well, we aren’t really sure parrots belong in captivity at all.

  3. Control interactions: Dogs should be properly leash trained with appropriate harness, collar, or halter for their size and breed. Retractable leashes increase the risk of everyone becoming tangled in a horrible Looney-Toons cartoon scenario. Horses should be properly ground-trained and handled with proper halter and lead.

  4. Track your cat. Cats are masters of teleportation, often appearing exactly where you don’t want them. If you know you’re going to be moving heavy or bulky things, doing dance or yoga in the living room, or anything else requiring coordination, consider having your cat hang out in a closed room for your safety and theirs.

  5. Don’t lick the lizard. Minimize animal to human infections by washing hands thoroughly after handling pets, especially reptiles and amphibians – snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs, etc., and by working with your veterinarian to keep your pets healthy and parasite-free.

  6. Understand that some animals are more domesticated than others. Nikolai is insanely intelligent, communicative, and social; he is also only a couple of generations out of the wild, and sometimes the wild parrot takes over. On the other hand, Cricket the service golden retriever, while somewhat prone in his youth to using humans as a backstop when running free, comes from millennia of dogs that decided humans make great pets. Although both hold huge chunks of my heart, treating the two of them the same and expecting the same level of behavioral consistency would be a grave error. And, along those lines, wild animals, even those raised in captivity, are WILD. They don’t have generations of inhibition regarding using their pointy parts on humans.

Staying safe around animals isn’t a matter of avoidance, it’s a matter of awareness. So, keep that leash away from your ankles, and I’ll be mindful of the fact that even parrots aren’t always at their best first thing in the morning. 

1 Comment

David Fernandez, DVM
May 1, 2019

Very observant and well written. Cats tends to stalk humans (normal hunting instinct, not because they want to eat you) and sometimes plop down in front of our feet for attention. I can easily see how an elderly person could take a nasty fall if a cat gets under foot. I was shocked one day when an elderly couple arrived with two puppies from a litter of Yellow Labradors. That didn't last long.

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