Babies and Pets – Guidelines to peaceful cohabitation
Part 1 – Before the baby arrives
This month’s blog addresses a very important topic related to the newborn babies and pets. Given the breadth of information required to effectively address this topic, we will be presenting the subject in two parts. To ensure the proper information provided relating pet behavior and suggested solutions during the transition period, this blog has been coauthored by Lindsey K. Westerfield, DVM a Veterinarian with the Schulhof Animal Hospital in Westport, CT. I am very grateful for Lindsey’s willingness to participate and her wealth of information related to the pet side of the story.
As of 2012, approximately 70% of all American households have at least one family pet. Roughly 67% of these households have either a cat or a dog. Having children in a household with pets raises many questions from expectant parents. Knowing a few simple rules may be very helpful to new parents in creating a peaceful and smooth transition of a newborn baby into the existing family dynamic.
A few basic rules to follow:
• Avoid getting both a new pet and having a new baby in the house at the same time. Both will need significant time and attention. The daily care of a newborn will interfere with dedicating time towards proper rearing and training of the new pet.
• Prepare your dog or cat BEFORE the baby gets home so that the new baby’s arrival will be stress free on them. Do not wait until the baby is born to act. Ideally start training 6-8 weeks prior to the baby’s expected date of birth.
10 ideas for pet preparation before the baby arrives:
• Know your pet’s personality and be aware of any known behavioral problems such as aggression (i.e. territoriality within the home or food aggression), separation anxiety, or fear of strangers, loud stimuli, or children. Discuss all observations of concern with your veterinarian as soon as they become apparent. Depending on the observed problem, there may be many different ways the pet can be treated to reduce the unwanted behavior (i.e. vocal commands, clicker training, and pharmaceutical therapy). Additionally, having your pet spayed or neutered could make the pet calmer and less likely to bite due to fewer hormonal surges. Owners should not overlook any behavioral concerns simply due to their emotional attachments to their pets. A child’s welfare and safety are paramount concerns.
• Have your pet examined by a veterinarian before the baby comes home. Vaccinations should be up-to-date and a stool (poop) sample should be tested for internal parasites. If the sample tests positive, the pet should be treated appropriately and then retested prior to the baby’s birth.
Babies, as well as elderly people, have a weaker or more immature immune system than the average adult. As such, they are more susceptible to infections that can be transmitted between pets and humans (called zoonotic diseases). Several of these include gastrointestinal parasites, mange, ringworm, and rabies, just to name of few. (While we will only be addressing intestinal parasites below, if there are any questions about the aforementioned zoonotic diseases, then you should consult your veterinarian.)
The most common way that a child would be exposed to an internal parasite is through a fecal-oral route. This means that if they are licked in the mouth or on the hands by an infected pet, or come in direct contact with the pet’s feces, they have the potential to contract a parasite. Dogs and cats can pick up gastrointestinal parasites from infected soil outdoors (i.e. dog parks or common social meeting places), sandboxes, and by eating other animals’ feces. The most important of these internal parasites are roundworms and hookworms, both of which have been shown to cause diarrhea, rashes, and even blindness in people. Giardia is another common parasite which can cause stunted growth and chronic diarrhea in children. Toxoplasmosis is another parasitive disease carried only by cats, which can be transmitted through a pregnant mother and into the in-utero child, and cause many serious lifelong problems.
There are many easy preventive tips used to reduce the chance of zoonotic transmissions:
• Good hand washing with hot water and soap for 30-60 seconds after coming in contact with saliva or feces from a pet.
• Proper disposal of animal waste. For cats, this includes daily cleaning of the litter box, and keeping the litter box away from all areas that the children can get into. For dogs who live both inside and outside, immediate removal of the feces from the yard and thrown away in a garbage bag.
• Administration of a monthly preventive medicine as prescribed by your veterinarian.
• Do not allow the pet to sleep in bed with you.
• Try to reduce all indications of “single child syndrome” from your pet. Do not give them attention at all times, even if they are used to receiving it. Use treats only as a reward for following commands. Create a safe haven for your pet, away from loud noises and most importantly, the baby’s room. Reward the pet when they appropriately go to this special spot when commanded, so that they realize they are not being punished when the baby receives attention and not them.
• Teach the dog or cat not to enter the baby’s room. Besides the allergens that all pets carry, they also can create a dangerous situation from innocently trying to cuddle with a child. Remember, a newborn baby does not have the capacity to turn over or change its own head position. If a cat were to crawl into the crib, it could cuddle into the baby’s face making it difficult to breathe. The door to be baby’s room should be closed when the baby is napping to prevent such occurrences. Many dogs and cats are inquisitive creatures by nature, and do not realize that they shouldn’t get too close to a baby.
• Reinforce and teach good behaviors such as sitting, laying down and staying, remaining quiet for short intervals, avoiding jumping up, and come when called and walking on a leash without pulling. Teaching the dog to control impulsive behavior is very important in establishing a dominant position in the household. Reward positive behaviors. Expectant parents can practice these skills while holding realistic baby dolls.
• Bring new baby items into the home ahead of time. The playpen, crib, swing, high chair, etc., should be brought in so the pet becomes used to them before they get used. This is especially important with noisy toys and devices so the pet will not be afraid of the sound or motion. However, do not let the animals jump on or nap on the baby furniture. It has been recommended to put adhesive on the furniture so that animals find it to be sticky and unpleasant to lay there.
• Open up the products that will be used on the baby (i.e. baby powder, lotions, etc.) and allow the pet to sniff them from the bottle and from your hands (but not eat it). Allow the pet to sniff toys, rattles, blankets as well.
• If a pet’s daily routine (exercise, feeding, play time) is dictated or overseen by mom, start to include dad more frequently. Many of the problems seen with the addition of a baby into the household are associated with the jealousy of the pets caused by receiving less attention. If dad oversees the daily functions, then there is a stronger likelihood that the pet will be less jealous when mom gives more attention to the baby. This change of pace definitely needs to be instituted several months in advance of the birth date in order for maximal efficiency.
• Play tape recordings of baby sounds (i.e. coos, screams, and crying noises). You may purchase these online (www.pregnantpaws.com; amazon.com; puplife.com). This desensitization is very important for an easy introduction of the baby into the household as many pets are easily startled by these new noises.
• As your baby grows, he/she will be more likely to unintentionally play rough with your pet. Desensitize your pet by touching them in places such as the face, tail, paw pads and in the ears and mouth. Try to do this at least several times through the course of the day. Also, practice taking away the toys or food during a meal, so as to avoid territoriality reactions. Food and toy guarding are the most common reasons for bites to children.