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Pets and babies – how to make it work

Katrina WarrenThe arrival of a baby can dramatically affect the family dynamics – including the furry members.

TV vet and mother Dr Katrina Warren shares some practical advice on preparing for the change and keeping all your kids safe and happy.

Pets are a part of family life and Australia has one of the highest pet ownership rates in the world with 63 percent of Australians owning a pet. Pets have many wonderful benefits for children and recent research shows they also:

  • encourage development
  • increase self-esteem
  • increase physical activity
  • reduce allergies

Unfortunately, the family pet can have a bad reputation with young children as there are many physical and psychological injuries associated with dog bites every year. There are also many myths that cats can smother newborns, which has never been proven. Well-meaning friends and relatives are quick to assume that as soon as a baby arrives that you must “get rid of” your original furry children. The good news is that with a bit of preparation, good training and socialisation these incidents can be prevented.

Before your baby arrives

‘The key with pets is to plan ahead and be diligent with your training,’ says Dr Warren. Making changes to your routine while you’re still pregnant will make the process a lot smoother.

  • while you have the time, take your pet to the vet to update flea and worm control
  • start setting boundaries for sleeping arrangements. If your pet usually shares your bed now is the time to move them to the floor or ideally to another room or outside.
  • restrict access to pet food, water and litter. If your pet has the full run of the backyard you may have to “pooper scooper” every time before letting your baby loose. Try to fence off the garden in such a way that there is a safe baby zone and a retreat for your pet.
  • crawling babies have been known to use the cat flap to escape out into the garden so you may need to secure the flap while your baby is at this stage.
  • trim your pet’s claws so they are less likely to cause damage if a scratch does occur. Alternatively, take it to a grooming salon for a pampering treat.
  • once you have set up the nursery, allow your pet to smell the nappies, wipes and clothes. After their initial exploration, the nursery and cot should be kept pet free.
  • if you’re worried about your pet entering the nursery, put up a screen door or a barrier gate (you’ll need to invest in one of these later anyway) so you can see and hear your baby but your pet stays out.
  • practise walking your dog with an empty pram. You may get a few odd looks but this way your dog will become familiar with the pram and the different pace they may have to walk.
  • start training your dog to sit, stay and come. These basic commands start your dog learning how to listen to you and understanding that you are the one in control of the situation at all times.
  • problem behaviour such as jumping up, pulling on the leash and barking need to be dealt with as soon as possible.
  • ask your friends, family or a professional dog walker to help walk your dog for the days when you can’t leave the house.
  • dogs and cats are very sensitive to a baby’s crying and can be easily distressed by the pitch. Playing a recording of a baby’s cry can reduce the chance of your pet becoming upset when they hear the real thing.

Bringing your baby home

Even with all the preparation, your world is still going to be turned upside down. But making it a positive experience for your pet and associating good things with your baby can minimise any disruptive behaviour.

  • if you’ve had your baby in hospital send home a blanket so your pet can have a good sniff and familiarise itself with the baby scent.
  • your pet would have missed you while you’ve been in hospital so before you walk in the door, hand the baby over to someone else and greet your furry baby at the door.
  • let the pet gently sniff the baby in your arms while giving them verbal praise.
  • it’s important to reward your pet for obedient, relaxed behaviour in the presence of your baby.
  • cats can become quite scared and may retreat under the bed in the hope everything will return to normal. Let them come out in their own time and reassure them with lots of affection.’

Once your baby is on the move it suddenly becomes a lot harder. Children love to chase and pull tails but it’s important to teach them from an early age that your pet isn’t a toy.

Preventing dog bites

Unfortunately, dog attacks result in approximately 16,000 hospital treatments and more than 2,300 are severe enough to warrant hospitalisation and reconstructive surgery each year in Australia. Children are particularly vulnerable due to their small stature and head at the height of a dog’s jaws. Dr Warren has a few golden rules to minimise the risk of being bitten or struck down by a dog in the family home, friend’s house or at the park.

  • always ask the owner for permission before you pat a dog. Even the happiest dog is capable of biting a stranger.
  • never pat a dog on the top of the head or with an open palm as this appears threatening to a dog. Instead, offer your hand as a fist for him to sniff before tickling under the chin.
  • never approach a dog that is eating or chewing a bone as dogs can become protective of their food.
  • never wake a sleeping dog as this may frighten him and he may bite in defence.
  • don’t play chasing with a dog as children’s squeals get the dog excited and they can accidentally knock children over.
  • always supervise your children with dogs as they often think of dogs as toys and pick them up and pull tails and ears.
  • choose your dog carefully, making sure the breed and temperament fits in with your lifestyle, accommodation and how much time you can spend with it.
  • train your dog to obey basic commands such as sit, stay, drop and come.
  • talk to your vet if your dog shows any signs of aggression. These problems can often be stopped if managed early.

Choosing the right pet for your family

A pet is a valued member of the family so it’s important that you assess your lifestyle, accommodation, child’s age, and the amount of time and money you’re prepared to spend on a pet. There are so many types of pets and breeds to choose from but dogs that generally have a good temperament around children include Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Cocker Spaniel, Golden Retriever, Great Dane (but they are huge so best for the child to be older), Labrador Retriever, Maltese/Shih Tzu cross, Pug and Whippets. Cats are easier as most moggies are independent and will adjust to family life. Breeds such as Abyssinians and Burmese are usually playful and energetic, and adapt well to life with active children.

‘Mice, rats and goldfish are great first pets for children because the life span is much shorter and the parents can see how much effort the kids put into looking after them. If they get bored after a while then it’s not the same responsibility as a 15-year-old cat,’ advises Dr Warren.

Talk to your vet about types of pets and breeds which would suit your family.  There are also many welfare shelters such as the RSPCA, Animal Welfare League, Cat Protection Society and the Lost Dog’s Home that all have loving, family friendly pets available.

Why pets are great for kids

In addition to providing unconditional love and affection, pets share a special relationship with children as they see pets as another member of the family. They:

  • teach responsibility – ‘Whenever you have a pet with a young child, the parent is always going to be the primary carer. With lower maintenance pets like goldfish, the parent is still the main carer but you can get the kids involved and teach them responsibility,’ says Dr Warren.
  • they’re friends –  ‘Pets and children share a special bond’. Dr Warren says, ‘Kids will often confide in their pets and tell them secrets that they perhaps wouldn’t share with another member of the family.’
  • encourage development – pets help children develop nurturing and social skills, aiding self-esteem and developing non-verbal communication. Studies of school children have shown that pet owners are not only more popular with their peers but seem to have more empathy as well.
  • teach life lessons – Dr Warren believes that ‘the death of a family pet is usually the first experience a child has with death. You can teach them about the mourning process and give a little funeral. It can be quite a crucial moment in a child’s life.’
  • encourage exercise – walking the dog is a great way for the whole family to spend time together. The Children’s Leisure Activities Study was undertaken by the Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition to look at the family environment and its influences on children’s physical activity and behaviour. Preliminary findings indicate that playing with pets is in the top 10 physical acts for the family. Owning a dog may encourage children to exercise and help reduce childhood obesity in Australia.
– this article was kindly supplied by My Child magazine

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