As a physician, I have followed an unusual path. Before becoming a pediatrician more than 25 years ago, I was a veterinarian for 10 years. This puts me in a unique position to guide families on what to expect when bringing a pet into the home with a child, as well as when bringing a child into a home with a pet. There are numerous considerations when bringing them together and mainly it’s important to consider the age of your child, as well as their allergies.
Before baby’s arrival
Just as they avoid certain foods, expectant mothers also should avoid certain pet duties during pregnancy. Specifically, those who have cats should avoid cleaning the litter box. Cats can carry a parasite called toxoplasmosis. While most of us can tolerate exposure to it, pregnant mothers are more susceptible to picking it up and experiencing complications during pregnancy. Cleaning the birdcage also should be removed from the task list for moms-to-be. Many birds carry infectious bacteria called psittacosis and while infections in people are rare, it too can lead to illness and complications.
Infant to age eight
Many children in this age range beg their parents for a pet, and dogs and cats are most common. While it’s tempting to see the joy it would bring to your child, know that it also will bring additional responsibility for the parent. Children this age cannot be expected to be primary caretaker for a pet. Parents need to know that whichever pet they choose will be their responsibility alone.
When bringing a new baby into the home with a dog, it’s important to permit the dog an opportunity to become familiar with the baby. Before bringing the baby home from the hospital, familiarize the dog with the baby’s scent by bringing a blanket home from the hospital that has been used by the baby. When the baby arrives home, give the dog a lot of reassurance and permit them to cure their curiosity by sniffing the baby. Do not permit the dog to lick the baby, particularly on the face.
As everyone acclimates to one another, it’s important to ensure all interactions between a dog and the baby are supervised. From the dog’s perspective, they do not see the baby as a person. They see it as another animal at their eye level. Teach your pet to be calm. Signs that your dog might be under stress are pinned back ears or a tail between the legs. It is time to step in and separate the two when you see this. But babies need to be gentle, too. At this age, they have no boundaries and tend to hit and pull ears. Teach the child to pet gently.
Eight and up
Children over the age of eight can take on some responsibilities for a pet in terms of feeding and walking. But, unfortunately, the parent is not completely off the hook. Kids will lose interest and one parent needs to be invested in the full care of the pet when the inevitable disinterest arrives. If one parent is not willing to make that commitment, I strongly discourage families from getting a dog or cat.
What’s more important when considering bringing a pet into the home for an older child is life span. Dogs have an average lifespan of 10 to 13 years and cats have one of 13 to 16 years. This means there is a very good chance that your child will leave home in the pet’s later years placing responsibility squarely on you. Pets you can consider with shorter lifespans are a mouse (one to two years), a rat (two to three years), a rabbit (six years) or even fish.
First, there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog or cat. This is because pet allergies are not associated with a pet’s fur. They’re associated with dander, which is skin flakes, and all dogs and cats have dander. I’m often met with great surprise and defeat when I tell this to parents of allergic children. But this does not mean these families cannot have a pet. Coexistence can work. It just needs to be managed. Here are some pointers:
1. Establish an animal-free zone for your child, ideally their bedroom. This is a place where the door is kept closed and access is denied for the pet.
2. Wash hands thoroughly after playing with and petting the pet.
3. Discourage your child from burying their face into the pet’s fur.
4. Place an air-purifier in your child’s bedroom.
5. Avoid carpet in areas of the house where the child spends a great deal of time.
If you are not willing to take the risk with a dog or cat for your allergic child, I generally suggest reptiles, fish or turtles.