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“Get off that! That’s the baby’s!” Have you ever found yourself saying this to your pet?

My friend Staci asked me a month or so ago to write a post about household pets and their relationships with babies. Jia’s godmother Megan also commented on how good it was to have Jia exposed to our two pugs, Mei Mei and Kona, for enhancing her immune system and resistance to allergens.

Since many of my friends have fur children, I decided to write a post about it: how to prepare your fur children for their fur-less sibling’s invasion in their home, how it affects baby’s development, etc.

Back when I was pregnant, Jeff and I tried to think of ways that would improve the chances of acceptance of the baby to our doggies. This was even more of a concern since I knew Kona was given to the pug rescue in San Diego because he wreaked havoc once a new baby arrived when he was little. We really couldn’t think of many approaches except talk to them and tell them their baby sister was coming, having them sniff baby gear, playing YouTube videos of crying babies (this elicited a lot of adorable pug head tilts. We also put the pugs in Jia’s crib and baby carrier but that was purely for our entertainment!). My friend Mary and her husband had a smart idea and walked their dog Jet alongside their empty stroller before little Liam arrived, to get him used to it.  And, after Jia arrived, we had our family visitors bring the doggies Jia’s receiving blankets with her scent, where they were placed in their doggie beds. From what we were told, they both avoided the blankets. “Uh oh,” we thought…

It took a while for the doggies to warm up to Jia. It’s actually STILL a work in progress. When we brought her home from the hospital, I was very paranoid about the doggies walking, sitting, or lying on Jia’s “area,” so that it wouldn’t be instantly covered in pug hair or dirt. We lived in a 1 bedroom condo, so her pug-free area was limited but sectioned off by baby blankets, diaper changing stuff, etc. We would say a firm “No!” if they approached her area and they learned pretty quickly that they weren’t allowed to go on that part of the sectional. Occasionally, the pugs would approach Jia and sniff her face but we didn’t see any real bonding. Now that Jia is older, when she excitedly reaches out to pet either pug, Mei Mei avoids her reach while Kona (usually) obliges her not-so-gentle baby pats and ear pulls (we try to stop her from pulling their ears but babies are really quick!).

Now I consider, was I too strict about doggies invading her sacred space? What other steps should we have taken to make the transition easier for them? There are many articles and studies that attest to the benefit of the pet-child relationship, so I wanted to investigate and re-think our approach for whenever Taylor (Human) Baby #2 comes along:

Protection Against Respiratory Allergies, Dermatitis & Asthma:

Respiratory infections are very common in babies, especially during their first year. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) cites attendance in daycare, lack of breastfeeding, and older siblings as factors increasing the incidence of respiratory infections like the cold and flu.

However, the AAP states that babies from homes with pets (moreso with dogs) tend to have fewer cases of illnesses, especially otitis– a common middle ear infection seen in babies, and less frequent courses of antibiotics.

The AAP also published a multivariate analysis study to evaluate the effect of domestic pets on respiratory infections during babies’ first year of life. They found  that children having either a dog or cat in the home were overall significantly healthier than children without (ear infection and/or respiratory infections). What was interesting was that the protective effect was strongest with having a dog at home, over a cat. 

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology published a study supported by the National Institutes of Health which found that having an indoor or outdoor dog or cat (that is indoors for at least 1 hour per day), prior to baby’s delivery was statistically significantly protective against the development of allergies and asthma. The analysis included blood levels of IgE (showing an allergic exposure), which was 28% less in babies born to families with pets. The relationship is likely due to exposing “bacterial populations” to the infant’s early development through prenatal exposure via mom, that positively influence the immune system’s defense making it more powerful in protecting against development of respiratory viruses, allergies and asthma.

This protective effect is also true after baby’s arrival. Another research article published by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology reports a statistically significant reduction in the incidence of atopic dermatitis (eczema/skin irritation) and respiratory/allergic sensitivities when babies were exposed to furred animals. An online article written by Alice Park for Time Magazine’s Healthland section cites a research article by Bergroth published in Pediatrics, which found that babies who grew up in a home with a pet were 44% less likely to develop an ear infection and were 31% more likely to be healthy in their first year with a dog and 6% more likely to be healthy with a cat in the home. 

It is proposed that the “low dose exposures” to pet dander to an infant’s developing immune system is protective and beneficial.

These studies show varying results, but the overall trend is clear: having a pet benefits your baby’s resistance to illness.

Behavioral Benefits of Having a Pet:

Your baby’s interaction with your dog or cat can have a positive influence on your child’s behavior, too. Documented research has proven the therapeutic benefits of pets in lowering blood pressure, stress levels, anxiety, etc. These benefits apply to all humans, babies, toddlers, children, and adults of all ages! (sources below) And, having a pet can teach a baby (or toddler/child) about love, empathy, and compassion for animals.  

Preparing Fur Children for a Human Sibling:

To ensure a smooth transition for both your baby and pet (though your pet may have more insecurities than your baby), veterinary experts (source below) suggest the following:

Pre-Baby’s Arrival:

  • Talk with your pet’s veterinarian throughout your pregnancy so they can offer behavioral recommendations (they are the best resource). This is especially important if your pet has ever displayed any hostile or aggressive behavior. 
  • Make sure your pet is vaccinated for distemper, rabies, parasite control, flea and tick prevention
  • Expose your pet to the baby’s items prior to arrival. They suggest introducing your pet to the stroller, swings, noisy toys, etc before the baby arrives. 
  • Walk the dog(s) with the stroller before the baby is born. (Good job, Mary!!) The vets say this calms their fear of rolling objects and creates a positive experience of walking and getting exercise while the stroller is present. 
  • Play recordings of baby sounds, so that sensitive doggie ears become familiar with the noise. The experts suggest initially playing it at a normal volume and watching for their reaction. If the dog responds negatively, lower the volume and play the sound while doing something enjoyable (petting, brushing, treats, playing with toys), to desensitize them to the sound. 
  • Teach and reinforce not jumping onto people, before baby’s arrival home. (Our crazy Mei Mei is really REALLY bad at this but we have some inconsistent parenting on this one… cough cough, Jeff…)
  • If you plan on co-sleeping with baby (baby in bed with parents) and your pets sleep with you, get them  used to sleeping away from the bed before s/he arrives. 

Specific Cat Recommendations

  • Consider moving the litter box to a baby-free room (like office) BEFORE the baby arrives so they do not think this change is because of the baby. A pet door that is not big enough for baby to crawl through is a plus. 
  • Prepare comfortable areas for your cat, like scratching posts, window seats, etc. placed away from where you may be with the baby, so they don’t feel like the baby has taken over all their territory. 
  • Install a screen door on the nursery room if you are worried about a curious cat disturbing a sleeping baby. 
  • Put up a crib tent (didn’t know these existed) over the crib if you are concerned about massive amounts of cat fur in the crib.

Bringing Baby Home:

  • Mom should be empty-handed when she greets the pets after having baby. Before you introduce baby to your pets, both parents should plan to provide lots of love and attention to them. Then after everyone is reunited, introduce baby.
  • Don’t force the introduction (if they are avoid baby, don’t pull your pet towards him/her), just let them be around baby. 
  • Distract the pets with a toy, snack, or treat if they become curious and want to lick the baby a lot or sniff the baby excessively. 
  • Do not yell or raise your voice at your pet if they seem to become agitated, fearful, or jealous. Have the other adult take the dog someplace for another activity. 
  • Set up a baby-only zone once your baby becomes more mobile. According to veterinary medicine.dvm360.com, this is usually when pets become more aggressive, and having a sectioned off area to separate your baby from your pet if they start to show aggression. 
  • Desensitizing your pet to life with a baby is helpful. This can be done by tossing treats to the pet while at the changing table or providing a bone or toy during feedings, so they don’t view the baby as competition for affection. This is positive reinforcement.
  • No dog should be left alone with a small child. Barriers should be set up (like a play pen, swing, etc) or the parent/adult should be holding the baby or supervising at all times.  

So, not only should your pet remain a loved member of the family once your baby arrives, but we should also keep in mind that having a new baby is as big of a drastic change to their lives as it is to ours. If your pet doesn’t “take” to the baby immediately, don’t give your pet away. It’s important to prepare them for the change, they had 100% of our attention so it’s natural for them to need time to adjust. Our pets provide even more benefits to our health than we imagined, so they deserve our taking the time to make sure they know how much we love them too.

Sources:

Effect of prenatal indoor pet exposure on the trajectory of total IgE levels in early childhood. Havstad S., Wegienka G., Zoratti E., Lynch S., et al.  J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2011; 128: 880-5. <http://www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749(11)01061-X/pdf>

Effects of dog ownership and genotype on immune development and atopy in infancy. Fern J., Reardon C., Hoffjan S., Nicolae D., et al. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2004; 113: 307-14. <http://www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749(03)02679-4/pdf>

Respiratory Tract Illnesses During the First Year of Life: Effect of Dog and Cat Contacts. Bergrof E., et al. Pediatrics. 2012; 130(2). <http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/07/03/peds.2011-2825.full.pdf+html>

Rodale News: Prenatal Pet Exposure Linked to Lower Allergy Risk in Children. http://www.rodalenews.com/benefits-pets-0

Rodale News: Scientists Discover Why You Love Your Dog. http://www.rodalenews.com/benefits-having-dog

Exploring Animal-Assisted Programs With Children in School and Therapeutic Contexts. Early Childhood Education Journal. Frisian, L. 2010; 37: 261-267. <http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10643-009-0349-5#page-1>

Ensuring a behaviorally healthy pet-child relationship: http://veterinarymedicine.dvm360.com/ensuring-behaviorally-healthy-pet-child-relationship

What to Expect – The Benefits of Pets for Kids: http://www.whattoexpect.com/kids-and-pets/benefits-of-pets.aspx

TIME Healthland: Study: Why Dogs and Cats Make Babies Healthier. http://healthland.time.com/2012/07/09/study-why-dogs-and-cats-make-babies-healthier/

Veterinary Medicine @ DVM360 – Ensuring a behaviorally healthy pet-child relationship: http://veterinarymedicine.dvm360.com/ensuring-behaviorally-healthy-pet-child-relationship?id=&sk=&date=&pageID=4