Child Development and Parenting: Infants
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Infant Development: How Your Baby Grows and MaturesInfant Parenting: Keeping Your Baby Healthy and HappyInfant Safety: Keeping Your Baby SafeInfant Enrichment: Stimulating Your Baby
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Child Development and Parenting: Early Childhood

Pet Safety

Angela Oswalt, MSW

If a family is looking to bring a pet into the home (and no pet is presently in the home), they should consider waiting until their child is at least five years old. This is the age when a child can best be taught how to act around a pet so as to treat him or her with respect and not as another variety of toy.

When selecting pets for homes with school-aged children, dogs and cats seem to be the best playmates and pals. Fish and small rodents such as hamsters are also often family favorites, but these pets do not allow for much child-pet interaction, and younger children should not handle them. Exotic animals are never a good match for a family with kids. Reptiles are an especially poor choice for homes with children because reptiles have an exceptionally high risk of carrying Salmonella bacteria, which can cause significant illness and possibly death when spread to children.

When selecting a cat or dog, caregivers should talk to pet sellers, rescue organizations or shelter staff about what breeds of dogs or cats and what specific animals seem to be most appropriate for homes with children. Some breeds tend to be calmer or more patient with kids than other breeds. Just like humans, each individual pet has its own personality.

Whether it's a new animal in the home or an existing family friend, caregivers should regularly take pets to the veterinarian for preventative care and treatment and regularly bathe and groom them. It's important for pets to receive flea and tick prevention treatments to prevent the spread of these pests to children, but the harmful chemicals in flea dips and collars are also dangerous to kids. Pet owners should talk to their vet about less toxic, child-friendly alternatives to conventional pesticide treatments. As well, pets' claws should be trimmed and filed often. Some cat owners de-claw their animals to prevent scratches, but this practice is regarded as cruel mutilation by animal advocates (it is the equivalent of removing the first joints from your fingers!). Once again, concerned parents and cat owners can consult with their vet for other more gentle options.

If a dog or cat already lives in the home when a new baby comes home, animals' personal spaces, such as food and water bowls, sleeping crates and litter boxes should be kept off limits. Enforcing this practice will do two things. First, it will prevent exploratory children from putting dog food or clumped feces in their mouths which may be a germ risk. Secondly, this prevents these animals from feeling threatened in their feeding and elimination spots which will reduce their risk for snapping, hissing, scratching, biting or other defensive behavior. Babies and young children should constantly be supervised while in the room with the pets, and caregivers should watch for threatened or defensive postures or behaviors on the part of the animals.

To help prepare the family dog for a new family member, caregivers can rehearse baby activities with the dog. Before the baby is born, Mom and Dad can practice diapering, feeding, rocking, and pushing a stroller with a baby doll to familiarize the dog to these new activities and to see how the pet will react. Practicing with the dog provides an early warning for potential dangers, and also allows for time and space in which to redirect and train the dog as appropriate. Some parents choose to invest in formal dog training to further ensure a dog's obedience and patience around children. Furthermore, when a baby is born, a caregiver can allow the dog to sniff something belonging to the baby, like a blanket or hat, so he can get acquainted with the baby's smell and be more comfortable when she comes home.