Blending pets and babies under one roof has its delights, its drawbacks, and its dangers. Research shows that having a furred animal in the household helps children build stronger immune systems as they grow and reduces their likelihood of developing allergies and asthma. But animals can also carry disease and accidents do happen. But with a little preparation, you can balance the benefits and risks of caring for babies and pets simultaneously.
Let the Fur Fly
Furred animals can help keep your baby from developing annoying and potentially life-threatening allergies and asthma later in life, as well as help him or her build a stronger immune system. James E. Gern, MD, a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published a study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in which he revealed that infants in homes with dogs were 33 percent less likely to suffer from pet allergies and eczema later in life and also had a higher level of immunity to common illnesses. Dr. Gern draws no conclusions about the cause for this correlation, but speculates that it's the result of a homeopathic effect, a literal "hair of the dog" scenario in which the body builds antibodies when a potential toxin is present in small quantities.
Similar research on children in daycare has shown that the dirt and germs present in that environment also help build stronger immune systems. Since animals don't come without dirt and germs, thank your furry friend for helping you raise a healthy kid.
Keep Safeguards in Place
That said, you still need to be careful when introducing pets and babies to each other. Those little immune systems aren't very strong yet and animals can't always discern between a big person who likes to play and a tiny person with fragile limbs.
In deciding whether a blended household of kids and pets is right for your family, there are a few things to consider first.
One is toxoplasmosis, especially if you have an outdoor cat. Though this disease-causing parasite is rare in the United States, there remains a risk that mom can pass it to baby during pregnancy, potentially causing brain and eye damage to the fetus. Toxoplasmosis is transmitted through outdoor cats, birds, mice, contaminated soil, and raw or undercooked meat. Pregnant moms should not handle or eat raw meat, clean your cat's litter box, or garden without gloves. You should also consider making your cat an indoors cat if he or she isn't already. After bringing your baby home, continue to take precautions while handling raw meat and animal waste, and always wash your hands before making even indirect contact with your child.
Most pregnant women with toxoplasmosis will not show any signs of the disease. If you suspect you may have been exposed to this parasite, a simple blood test can confirm its presence in your body and your doctor can treat you with antibiotics. Keep in mind that, though you should be careful, the chances of contracting this infection are very low, and even lower in women who are long-time cat owners.
The "sibling" rivalry that can arise in a pet when your attention has suddenly been usurped by a new baby is also a concern. Just as older children need time and support to adjust to a younger brother or sister, so do our furry friends. Sudden removal of your affection and attention from a pet can make him or her depressed and potentially aggressive toward the new arrival, so begin the transition process long before your due date. You can keep everyone safe and comfortable by establishing firm rules for your pet.
Before the Big Day
- Take your pet to the vet for a routine check-up and make sure he or she has all necessary vaccinations. You should do so regularly after your baby is born, too, to prevent the chance that your pet will pass an illness on to your child. Also keep in mind that spayed and neutered animals tend to have fewer health problems and exhibit less aggressive behavior.
- Address obedience problems before you throw a baby into the mix. Hire a private trainer or enroll in a school to make sure your dog's behavior is under good control. It will save you a lot of stress later on when you're juggling a newborn and a playful pup.
- If you haven't done so already, get in the habit of trimming your cat or dog's nails regularly. Our animals very rarely intend to do us harm, but their playful scratches can hurt. To a newborn, they can bring injury and infection. So clip your pets' nails and take the edges off their affectionate natures.
- If your pet is in the habit of jumping on furniture, apply double-stick tape to pieces where your baby will be, like the crib and changing table. This will deter a cat or dog from getting too close too soon. You may decide that you want to keep animals and babies completely separate in your house, at least for a little while, so install a safety barrier at the door to your child's room if that is the case.
- Just as you would for an older sibling, set up a reliable pet sitter for your dog or cat while you're at the hospital and for any other emergency. Make sure your pet has time to get to know this person before leaving them together to avoid too sudden a change in routine.
- Accustom your pet to the smells and sounds of an infant. The last thing you want is your dog barking at your baby because he or she is unfamiliar. Play a recording of baby sounds around the house and sprinkle baby oil or powder on you and the furniture. Try to take your dog to the park and let him see and maybe even interact with other children (provided the parents are comfortable). You can also bring a small article of your newborn's clothing, like a sock or a hat, home before the baby comes and let your dog sniff it.
Bringing Baby Home
- If your dog is used to greeting you at the door, try to have someone else there to distract him or her while you bring the baby to the nursery. Or divide the labor between you and your partner-one of you can greet the dog while the other gets the baby settled.
- Award your pet for treating the baby gently. Positive reinforcement encourages good behavior.
- Be more vigilant about separating children from birds and reptiles than cats and dog, as non-furred animals are more likely to carry bacteria. Always wash your hands after touching your pet and cleaning out his or her cage and before interacting with your child.
- Always supervise contact between your child and any animal, no matter how docile and well behaved. Accidents do happen.
And Baby Makes Three ... or Four ... or Five
Your blended family of pets and children can be as big and as happy as you want it to be, provided you follow a few guidelines for making everyone's transition into cohabitation as easy and safe as possible.