Did you know that having a family pet helps to reduce the incidence of childhood pet allergies, builds a child's self-esteem, teaches empathy and compassion, not to mention provides undeniable companionship for your child? With research supporting such positive attributes to having companion animals, it is surprising to me the number of people who refuse to allow their children to be around pets. But, there is a lot of misinformation out there...
When I was pregnant with my daughter, you wouldn't believe the number of people who told me I would have to consider the possibility of getting rid of my cats, or at least making them outdoor pets. My response? "That's NOT going to happen." I would always acknowledge that bringing a human baby into this world meant that my priorities would, in fact, change. But, that didn't mean my furry babies would ever be left out in the cold --or in the heat, as the case may be in Central Mississippi. I am a responsible pet owner and that means my pets will always have a forever home.
I've been an animal welfare advocate for quite a long time, so I've taken the time to educate myself about the myths and realities of pet ownership with respect to pregnancy and parenting. I've decided to focus this blog entry primarily on households with one or more cats.
One of the greatest myths out there is that a pregnant woman risks her health and the health of her unborn child by having a cat for a pet --the culprit being Toxoplasma gondii. To say this is a myth is not to say that toxoplasmosis does not occur or that members of the cat family are not the primary hosts of T. gondii. But, the fact of the matter is that it is relatively easy to eliminate the chances of infection just by using a little common sense. Cats become infected by ingesting rodents or birds who are infected with the parasite, so just by keeping your cat indoors you can dramatically decrease the risk of infection in your home. And, since toxoplasmosis cysts are shed in the feces of infected animals, it is important to either wear gloves and/or thoroughly wash your hands after cleaning litter boxes, which should be done twice daily to prevent any cysts from becoming infectious. If you have someone to help you --such as a spouse-- then it is best to let him take over litter box duties while you are pregnant.
Another perpetual myth is that cats will suck the breath out of a newborn baby as he or she sleeps. The reality is that some cats and dogs like to cuddle, so it is best to keep the baby's sleep area off limits to pets until the child is older to avoid the risk of suffocation. The same is true for stuffed animals.
Nearly one out of every five people are allergic to animals, so it is not surprising that another common myth is that having a child who is diagnosed with a pet allergy means the family pet should take a hike. This is such a heartbreaking suggestion and it is almost always unnecessary. Before taking such drastic measures, try a few of these more humane suggestions:
- Make your child's room and/or play area a pet-free zone by keeping the doors to these areas closed.
- Minimize the amount of carpet (which can trap allergens) in your home by installing other flooring alternatives such as hardwood and ceramic tiles.
- Use a HEPA filter-equipped vacuum and dust frequently.
- Steam clean any carpeted areas or fabric-covered furniture periodically.
- Use a HEPA filter-equipped air purifier in your home.
- Teach your child to wash his or her hands after handling the pet.
- Bathe and groom your pet regularly to eliminate excess allergens that can become trapped in the fur.
- Note that medications and immunotherapy alternatives exist, as well.
Using one or more of the above suggestions virtually eliminates the possibility of having to rid your home of the family pet, which makes for a much happier family.
For more information, please visit the ASPCA website and other pet-friendly resources.