Lifetime Pets | Babies & Young Children
Filed in Cats, Dogs, Getting a New Kitten/Cat, Getting a New Puppy/Dog
In most homes, pets are considered members of the family. They are tended to and cared for and efforts are made to see to their comfort and the quality of their lives. Never are these efforts more important than when there are both pets and babies in the same home.
The topic of pets and babies brings up two situations that require separate, but similar, discussion: bringing a new baby into the house with already established pets and bringing a new pet into the home with an already established baby.
Experts advise that families should avoid bringing new pets into the home until the children are at least 5-6 years old. Obviously, that is the ideal and doesn't illustrate many of the homes in America today. Many young families add pets to their home while their children are still quite young and they are happy and successful in this venture. Still, there are some common problems that should be addressed to ensure success.
When adding a pet to a home where young children are present, there are two main concerns: health and safety. Consider the parents of a new infant who add a puppy to their home. Not only are they dealing with the loving, though sometimes frustrating, demands of the infant, but the demands and needs of the puppy as well. This can add to an already burdened care-taking role.
Consider too that infants from a pet-less home can sometimes be more easily diagnosed when they fall ill, since pet allergies and infectious illnesses which might be carried by the pet can be ruled out. Even if the parents are wise enough to let a baby grow-up a bit before bringing a pet into the home, consider the fact that many of the natural behaviors of young children mimic behaviors which trigger natural, but unsafe, behaviors in other animals. Consider the natural tendencies involved here. In their most basic form, what are children between birth and 5 or 6? They are highly excitable, active, small, non-complex-thinking creatures with high-pitched voices. The inner-dog (at an instinct level) can easily translate that into prey. Of course the instinct is often outweighed in the domesticated dog, but only if the temperament and socialization/training are in support of it. Completely normal childish behavior can easily trigger an instinctual predator-prey reaction from a usually friendly dog.
Another point is that young children often do not know how rough they are being. If you've ever seen a one year old child try to hold or hug an unwilling cat, you've seen this in action! Young children aren't yet masters of their own bodies and intentions and new pets aren't yet masters of their new environments and behaviors. Without immediate supervision, this can be a dangerous combination.
This is not to say that there is no success in the pet and baby combination, certainly there are many happy young families with loving pets. We hope to encourage thoughtful contemplation before purposefully embarking on the journey. The idea behind the "wait until the child's 5 or 6" theory is that it respects the natural inclinations of both children and pets and it doesn't add to an already rough care-taking schedule within the home.
Consider now the other situation, those families who already have pets in the home and who are expecting a baby or are adopting a beautiful new child. When the pet is already established in the home, there are a few additional concerns, to ponder.
The most obvious is the possibility of territorialism and what humans interpret as jealousy. When a baby is coming into the home, make sure your pet is allowed to be part of the preparation process. Obviously, unless your Collie can wallpaper the nursery, there are limits to your pet's involvement in the preparations, but they can be "available" or "present" during them. Don't shoo them out of the nursery, let them explore the new environment. Let them get used to the new baby smells - oils, powders, detergents, etc. before the baby comes home. This is part of your pet's adjustment process. When introducing your new baby or child to the family pet(s), do it in a controlled circumstance - not when you're swarmed by family members and well-wishers. Wait until you can have some quiet time with your pet. Put your pet in a down-stay and let them observe you with your new baby.
Remember that a new baby doesn't look, act or smell like a human being. Give your pet some time to figure it all out. Remember that these new noises and actions are new for your pet as well as for you. Give him time to get used to it. In the days after the homecoming for the new family member, make sure that you give your pet ample attention and continue to maintain his regular schedule of walks and feedings and play times. This will give your pet some assurance that there is not that much that has changed and that his needs are still going to be met.
Regardless of which came first - the pet or the child - pet owners are wise to follow a few Golden Rules:
- Never leave dogs alone with kids under five years of age.
- Give the pet a "safe spot". Call it "doggy time out" or "kitty haven" and let your young children know that it is a place for the pet to be alone, without visitors.
- If you have young children and pets in the home at the same time, obedience training is a must. If your children are old enough, let them participate according to their abilities.
- Both the pet and the child should get a bit of the same treatment, when their ages allow for it. In other words, train the child, not just the pet.
- Never let children go near pets when they are: feeding, sleeping, affected by illness or generally out-of-sorts.
Socialize first, train second.
If there is the slightest indication that your pet is going to act aggressively toward your child, separate them immediately and call a trainer for help. Your young child is defenseless against the instinct and reactions of a dog, cat, ferret, etc.
- If you have young children (birth to 5 or 6 years) in your home, seriously consider waiting to bring a pet into your family.
- If you have young children and pets in your home, obedience training is a must.
- Young children and some pets have a few natural tendencies which are - by nature - at odds. Be respectful of those differences.
- Don't just train your pet, train your child too.
- When bringing a baby into a home with an already established pet, prepare the pet before the homecoming by exposing him to the baby's environment and smells.
- When discussing your child's health with your pediatrician, let the doctor know that you have pet(s) in your home.
- Create a "safe spot" for your pet, where he will not be bothered by children.
- Never leave young children alone with pets.
Watch for signs of aggression toward your child. If this occurs, confine the pet immediately and get professional help.
d Kelly is a freelance writer, educator, and dog lover living in Florida.
Michael Levy is co-owner of Pet Food Express with more than a decade of professional dog training experience.