The complex dynamics of babies and pets.

Pets and people.
June 22 2006 1:10 PM

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

The complex dynamics of babies and pets.

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Reading the Humane Society of the United States'suggestions for how to prepare your pet for the arrival of your baby made me realize how negligent my husband and I had been before our daughter's arrival 10 years ago. In the months before her birth, I was supposed to be anointing myself with eau de baby wipe to get our two cats accustomed to new scents. I should have held, bathed, and diapered a swaddled doll in their presence. Thank goodness I didn't have a dog then, or I'd have to take it for walks accompanied by the doll in the stroller. (The HSUS does not offer counsel for what to do if the neighbors start worrying you're suffering from prepartum psychosis.) Finally, I should have familiarized my pets with baby sounds by playing a recording of an infant crying. I found one here: www.preparingfido.com. The sample is so enjoyable it made me yearn for "Teen Party Next Door" and "Broken Car Alarm."

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

Thankfully, our lack of preparation didn't prove too detrimental. Our cats initially boycotted the new arrival, but as the months went by they became remarkably patient playmates, letting our daughter conclude their tails were hairy, interactive baby toys. (I hovered to make sure things didn't get too interactive.) Indeed, children and pets have been happily mixing it up for millenniums, and now there's evidence that such interactions are good for children's health. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that children in multiple-pet households had about half the risk of developing allergies as children without pets—all those dog and cat licks might provide healthy stimulation to the child's immune system. But given that today's parents put locking devices on their toilets to protect their offspring, what are the sensible precautions one should take before baby and pet cohabitate?

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The unbreakable rule of young children and pets is: Never leave them unsupervised. If things go wrong, particularly with a dog, tragedy can ensue. Cats don't typically present a biting hazard, but they often like to jump into a baby's crib or playpen to cuddle. It's unlikely, but a cat could suffocate an infant who's unable to push it away.

Rarely, a dog will mistake an infant for prey. Dr. Laurie Bergman, of the University of California Veterinary Medical Center in San Diego, helped clients turn around this potential disaster when their Jack Russell terrier was stalking their week-old baby. The couple was so terrified, they left the dog alone in the house and moved in with other family members. Dr. Bergman instructed the family to move back, keeping their dog outside for most of the day, so that it could get used to seeing the baby through the window. The dog was also allowed to go for walks on a leash with the baby in a stroller. By the time the son was a year old, the dog had accepted him as human, and they became happy playmates.

Owners must also convince the pet that the baby's arrival is not the worst thing to happen since the invention of spaying and neutering. Frequently owners make the mistake of only paying attention to the pet once the baby is down for a nap. The obvious conclusion in the pet's mind is, "Baby gone, life good." Dr. Marsha Reich, a Maryland veterinary behaviorist, says, "Try to find something that motivates the dog to couple with the baby. Throw the dog treats when you're nursing."

If pets are shunted aside, some may seek other ways to solicit attention. Shortly after one friend's first child was born, the cat, which had been ignored since the baby arrived, started limping dramatically on her hind leg. Many visits to the veterinarian later, the doctor remained unable to find a cause. Then one day the couple noticed that the cat only limped when it came upon the baby. Call it Munchausen's syndrome by feline.

Animal behaviorists warn that the most difficult moments in pet-child relations occur when the child becomes mobile. The animal is now confronted with toddling terror, and a once docile dog may growl and snap. But what looks like aggression is often fear: The dog finds itself cornered by a squealing, poking, pulling human. And the child, too young to realize a raised lip and growl means, "Please step away from the dog," continues to lunge.

Death by dog attack is extremely rare—about a dozen fatalities annually in the United States. But dog bites are common—around 4.7 million a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of the 800,000 who need medical assistance, half are children, and the most frequent victims are between ages 5 and 9. Almost all the bites were inflicted by a known assailant—the family dog or that of a neighbor. (Those numbers become less alarming when you consider there are almost 70 million pet dogs in this country.) Animal behaviorists—who often are brought in to deal with the aftermath of a dog bite—say that attack statistics don't convey the dog's side of the story.

This is what happened to Sparky, a Dalmatian that bit a visiting 4-year-old boy. The boy had spent the day chasing the dog, climbing on him, and grabbing food from his bowl. Later, when Sparky was asleep, the boy approached him. The boy's mother heard Sparky growl just before her son was bitten on the face. The distraught owner called Dr. Bergman, wondering if she should euthanize her pet. Dr. Bergman instructed the owner to approach her dog, who was cowering behind the toilet. On Sparky's face were several small, crescent-shaped red marks. The boy had dug his fingernails in Sparky's face hard enough to draw blood. "It was a provoked bite," Dr. Bergman explained.

Then there's the other extreme in pet-child relations. Occasionally a pet will bond so completely with children that witnessing the daily upsets of child-rearing can become unbearable. Take the dog that Dr. Lynne Seibert, a veterinary behaviorist in Washington, was asked to help: The dog had become phobic about counting. Some detective work revealed that when the owner was about to discipline her toddler, she would give the child a warning of, "One, two, three." When the dog heard that, she knew her "sibling" was about to be punished. Seibert helped the owner desensitize her dog by sitting quietly with her, calmly counting.

Of course, the ultimate in pet-child devotion was portrayed in Peter Pan. Just think of the savings parents would reap if everyone could find a child-care provider like the Darlings': a "prim Newfoundland dog, called Nana. … She proved to be quite a treasure of a nurse."