Babies and pets

Bringing home a new baby is tremendously exciting, but if you have pets, you may need to do a little preparation ahead of time to make sure that the whole family adjusts well to the new arrival.

Some people can be fearful about the risk a pet may pose to a small child, but there is no need to panic and, generally, no need to give up your much-cherished pet. Indeed, having pets around can be a wonderful and enriching experience for children as they grow up.

However, babies and small children can be more vulnerable to injury from pets and also to infections that can be carried by pets, because their immune systems are not fully developed.

It is important to take some time to think about how you are going to manage the day-to-day interactions between children and pets. Employing a few commonsense precautions mean that all members of the family can stay healthy and enjoy one anothers' company.

Immune systems

The organs and cells involved in protecting the body against infection.

Infections

Entry into the body of microorganisms that can reproduce and cause disease.

Pets and disease

There is a wide range of infections that can be passed from animals to humans. If you are concerned that this has happened, it is important to consult your doctor.

Some of the more common infections among household pets are:

Campylobacteriosis

Campylobacter infection can cause gastroenteritis, with symptoms including vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach cramps. These bacteria can be present in the faeces (poo) of pets such as dogs and cats and is passed to humans when the bacteria enters the mouth.

Sandpits contaminated with faeces is one method by which the bacteria can be passed to small children. Adults may be infected through contact with contaminated baby nappies.

Cat-scratch disease

Cat-scratch disease is caused by infection with Bartonella henselae bacteria. As the name suggests, it tends to occur because of being scratched or bitten by a cat. It is not passed from person to person.

The condition is more common in children than adults and causes painful, swollen lymph glands a number of weeks after the initial infection, and sometimes fever. However, symptoms are generally mild and the condition tends to get better without treatment.

Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic infection with a type of protozoa called Toxoplasma gondii. Humans can be infected by coming into contact with infected animal faeces, most commonly from cats.

It can infect young children through contact with faeces or contaminated soil and can cause birth defects in an unborn baby if a pregnant woman contracts the infection.

Salmonellosis

Salmonella are bacteria that are commonly carried by amphibians and reptiles such as turtles, tortoises, lizards and snakes. They can also be carried by cats, dogs and rodents such as mice and guinea pigs. Salmonella bacteria have also been linked to some dog foods.

Children under five years of age can be particularly vulnerable to this infection. Salmonella infection tends to cause gastroenteritis, with symptoms including vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach cramps. In some cases it can spread into the bloodstream and cause a severe infection that can be life-threatening.

Histoplasmosis

Histoplasmosis occurs when the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum is breathed in from the droppings of bats, or birds such as pigeons.

It can cause symptoms similar to pneumonia such as cough, chest pains and fever. It can also lead to damage of the retina later in life.

Infants can be prone to more severe forms of the disease.

Psittacosis

Infection with Chlamydiophila psittaci is called psittacosis or parrot fever. These bacteria can be carried by birds of the parrot family (such as budgerigars), as well as canaries, chickens and pigeons.

Psittacosis infects the lungs, causing symptoms such as fever, cough, headache and shortness of breath.

Fever

An increase in body temperature above the normal temperature range. Fever is often caused by the body's immune reaction to infection.

Fungus

An organism from the fungi kingdom, which is a separate group to plants or animals, and includes yeasts, moulds and mushrooms. Fungi feed on organic matter.

Infections

Entry into the body of microorganisms that can reproduce and cause disease.

Lungs

The pair of organs in the chest responsible for breathing.

Lymph glands

A small organ of the lymphatic system containing many immune cells. Lymph nodes, also known as lymph glands, are the sites where many interactions between immune cells and foreign materials occur.

Retina

The light-sensitive layer of tissue that lines the inside of the back of the eye. As part of the process of vision, cells in the retina send neural signals along the optic nerve to the brain.

Reducing the risk of disease

Simple hygiene measures can reduce the risk of infection being passed between pets and small children. These include:

  • Thoroughly washing hands with soap and running water after handling animals, cleaning up their faeces, enclosures or handling their food, and before touching children or preparing food;
  • Making sure children wash their hands after touching animals;
  • Removing animal faeces from areas children may play in, and restricting animal access to areas such as sandpits;
  • Following your veterinarian's recommendations for care of your pet, including medications for worms and fleas;
  • Supervising all interactions between small children and pets, and not allowing children to kiss animals or letting animals lick their faces;
  • Avoiding contact between small children and reptiles and amphibians, and;
  • Avoiding the use of kitchens and other areas used to prepare foods for washing amphibians or reptiles or their tanks, enclosures and equipment.

Infection

Entry into the body of microorganisms that can reproduce and cause disease.

Preparing pets for the new arrival

When a new baby arrives in the household, it generally creates big changes in everyone's routines, pets included. You can make the transition easier and less stressful for everyone by spending some time thinking about how you want things to work before the baby comes home and getting your pets used to these new arrangements.

You may also want to consider installing safety gates in the doorways of some rooms, if you wish to block pets' access.

Preparing your dog

The first consideration with your dog is general obedience. If your dog is trained to obey your commands, it is going to be easier to control its behaviour once the baby comes home. If your dog has any obedience issues, it is a good idea to address them before you are busy with your new arrival. Dog obedience schools or seeking the advice of a professional dog trainer can help.

You can also begin to introduce new routines and objects into the house in the months before the baby's arrival. Specific rules - such as which areas of the house or pieces of furniture are now off limits, or 'no jumping up on people' - need time to be reinforced. It is important to be consistent with dogs so that they clearly understand what is expected of them. One method to help accustom your dog to the presence of a baby is to carry a doll around for a while, so that they get used to the sight of a small baby in your arms.

You may wish to consider hiring help, such a dogwalker, or sending the dog to doggy day care during the first couple of weeks after the baby arrives, so that your dog's needs for activity and company are not overlooked. It is also not a good idea to lavish too much extra attention on your dogs in the weeks before the baby arrives in an attempt to 'make up' for the coming change, as it can just emphasise the change in the weeks after the baby comes home.

It is also important to be aware that all interactions between dogs and small children need to be supervised. Small children can be quite provoking for pets and do not recognise cues that a dog may be angry or in pain. When they are old enough, teaching small children how to handle pets appropriately is another important part of making sure that everyone gets along.

If there is any doubt about a dog potentially being aggressive towards a child, it is very important to seek professional advice.

Preparing your cat

Like dogs, cats are sensitive to changes in routines, so it is a good idea to do a little preparation in the months before the baby arrives home to accustom your cat to the new situation.

One old wives' tale is that cats may suck the air out of a baby's lungs. This is not true, but cats do like to curl up against warm objects. If they do this with a sleeping baby, it can make it difficult for the baby to breathe. Restricting the cat's access to the baby's sleeping area may be advisable.

Lungs

The pair of organs in the chest responsible for breathing.