Portable space heaters are great for taking the chill off a drafty room or work area. However, they can pose a safety issue if you have pets or young children.
Safety comes down to three things: Purchasing a heater with pet and kid friendly features, placing it out of harms way, and adequate supervision.
Fur-proof, finger-proof and paw-proof front panel and vents
The vents and front panels on most modern portable heaters are small enough to discourage curious paws and fingers. But what about fur? Pet hair, dust and other debris that gets into your heater will shorten the life of the unit and can possibly even start a fire. How much of a problem this is depends on the type of pet you have - if you have hairless or rex cats or poodles or other low-shedding dog breeds it's probably not much of an issue. If you have a dog who sheds constantly (like a Lab) or seasonally (like a Collie) or a normal short or long haired cat, its more of an issue.
We like heaters where the front panel is like a mesh or grill - it's pretty hard for hair to get into something like this!
Brushing your pet regularly will help keep the fur accumulation to a minimum.
Tip-over shutoff / Difficult to tip over
Kids and pets play hard and they don't always pay attention what's in their path. Knocking over a space heater is a common cause of heater fires. If the unit fails to shut off when knocked over, it can come in contact with and ignite paper, cloth or other combustibles.
A tip-over switch shuts of the heater if it is knocked over on its front, back or side. It's a great safety feature, and we wish more heaters offered it.
Another option would be a heater that's difficult to tip over - substantial in weight and with a good-sized footprint for its size. Location is important - place the heater in a location where it is unlikely to be in the direct line of fire, but be sure to heed manufacturer recommendations as to how much space to leave on each side.
Housing that stays cool to the touch will minimize the possibility of accidental burns. Rounded corners are a plus, especially if you have young kids.
Overheat alarms and shutoff switches
Most space heaters have either an overheat alarm or an overheat shutoff switch.
An overheat shutoff switch is the more useful of the two, It's an important fire-prevention feature that turns off power to the heater if it senses it is overheating.
Some heaters have an overheat alarm instead. This just informs you that the unit is overheating - you still have to be there and shut it off manually or it will overheat. When purchasing, read the product description carefully to see which it has.
Even if the housing of the heater is designed to remain cool, there will always be a risk of burns from the "business side" of the heater.
Also, some pets, older ones in particular, may tend to sleep too close to a heat source - not realizing how hot it is. This can cause dehydration in a frail, elderly pet, or they could accidently touch the front panel while sleeping and burn themselves.
One clever way to keep pets AND young kids from getting too close to the heater is to put it behind a wire "ex-pen" or even in a wire dog crate. Choose one with plenty of space so that the crate or pen wire doesn't get hot!, Another option is a portable fireplace screen.
We can't say it enough - always supervise pets and young children when you're using a space heater!