Having a pet join your family can be a wonderful experience and can bring great joy. Here are a few things to consider before adopting a pet or when bringing a new baby into a household where pets are already part of your family.
DO PETS CAUSE ALLERGIES AND ASTHMA? If you already own a pet, there is good news! The latest data from the National Institutes of Health, Jama Pediatrics and the National Center for Biotechnology Information suggests that early pet exposure, especially in the first year, can reduce the risk of your child developing asthma before the age of seven. These studies have shown that early exposure to pet dander can reduce hay fever, eczema and can also reduce the number of respiratory infections for children.
Even though children in the first year of life will likely still get sick even if you own pets, those who have early pet exposure to dogs (less so in cats) have fewer numbers of upper respiratory infections, fewer ear infections and less need for antibiotics. Unfortunately, older children can develop pet allergies even if they are already sensitized, so keeping pets out of bedrooms or having an outdoor pet may be more helpful in these instances. Additional options for children with pet allergies include choosing a hypoallergenic pet or even a reptile or fish.
DO PETS CARRY GERMS AND PARASITES? While it’s true that pets don’t always have the cleanest habits and can bring bacteria and parasites into your household, using common sense hand hygiene can help combat germs. It’s important to practice frequent hand washing when handling pets, especially reptiles which can carry bacteria like salmonella (though your furry friends can carry this too).
Get your pets regular veterinary care and treatment for parasites to help reduce the risk for infections. If your pet is diagnosed with a bacterial or parasitic infection, be sure to let your pediatrician know so you can watch symptoms and learn what treatment may be available for your child if needed.
WHAT WILL OUR PET THINK OF THE NEW BABY? It can take your pets a few days to adjust to the sounds and smells of a new baby. Allowing them to smell the baby’s blanket before they meet can be helpful. When you first come home from the hospital, be sure to greet your pet and give them some personal attention. After a few days of adjustment, have your pet meet your new baby. Pets can be unpredictable, and a new baby can add stress, so avoid leaving them together without supervision.
Do pets make good presents? Children often beg and plead for a pet for Christmas or their birthday, but it isn’t always a good idea to give a pet as a present. Instead, consider wrapping a photo of a cat or dog or giving a plush toy, to represent the new pet they’ll be receiving. Involve your child into the process of getting a pet and discuss the responsibilities involved.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN OUR PETS DIE? The death of a pet is often a child’s first experience with loss and grieving. Depending on your child’s age and stage of development, it may be hard to understand that death is permanent, so you may need to have the same conversation several times. Keep information simple, honest and accurate to avoid confusion and mistrust. Your child will experience a range of emotions and will likely have a lot of questions. It can be helpful to read books together about the loss of a pet.
Even though the loss of a pet can be a traumatic experience, it can help them form an understanding of death and grieving, which will help them in the future as this is an inevitable part of being alive.
Emily Waight, ARNP, IBCLC, is a pediatric nurse practitioner and lactation consultant with The Everett Clinic at Shoreline. She loves to help families establish a nurturing foundation from birth and strives to be partner with parents and work together to help their children thrive and grow all through infancy, childhood and adolescence. Ms. Waight is accepting new patients to her practice.