Ensuring a behaviorally healthy pet-child relationship


Ensuring a behaviorally healthy pet-child relationship

Behavior problems in pets are never a picnic, but they become even more important to address when children are in the home. Pass these tips on to your clients who are introducing a baby into their home or adding a pet to the family.
Oct 01, 2006

Despite the Disneyesque images of smiling children and their pets, establishing or maintaining behaviorally healthy homes with pets and children can be challenging. Expectant parents often have questions about introducing their babies to pets. And parents who plan to add pets to their homes also have important concerns about their children's safety. Veterinarians should encourage pet owners to turn to them for expert advice and assistance. Let clients know that you, not the pet store employee or the self-proclaimed master dog trainer, are the best source for reliable behavior recommendations.

First, discuss behavior at every nonemergency appointment. Ask clients if they have any behavior questions or concerns. This is especially important if you know there are children in the house. Take a moment to discuss zoonotic diseases, such as parasite control and rabies vaccination, as well as the No. 1 risk to children from pets, bite wounds. Provide handouts and other information, such as a poster in your waiting room, describing your ability to help clients with their pets' behavior problems. Some good sources for behavior handouts are Lifelearn ( http://www.lifelearn.com/) and the Handbook of Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat, 2nd Ed. (W.B. Saunders Co). Also see the client handout "Bringing home baby: Introducing a pet to your new arrival." In addition, carry and display humane behavior modification products, such as head collars and food enrichment toys.

Teach your dog well
Once your clients come to you for behavior advice, make sure you're prepared to answer their questions. Here are some tips about keeping the pet-child relationship a happy and healthy one.


Regardless of whether a pet has previously displayed behavior problems related to children, well in advance of a baby's arrival expectant parents should start preparing their pets for the many changes a new baby brings. It is much easier for pets to begin adjusting before an infant arrives than to get used to household changes and the baby all at once. This preparation also gives owners an early chance to see how their pets are adjusting and may help owners avoid assuming that any problems seen are due solely to the new baby.

Get a historical perspective

Expectant parents may ask you if it will be safe to have their pets, especially dogs, around a new baby. To advise these parents, first find out about the pet's history with babies, toddlers, and children. If there has never been such exposure or if there has been fear or aggression in the past, advise owners to be extremely careful. In such cases, schedule an appointment with the owners specifically devoted to discussing this problem rather than trying to fit it in at the end of a 15-minute annual examination, heartworm test, and vaccine booster appointment. Even if you don't treat a lot of behavior cases, you, your clients, and your patients will be well-served if you take the time to sit down, get complete historical details about the problem, and discuss the different aspects of the situation with the owners. If your clients have already brought the baby home and cannot make an appointment with you right away, help them make arrangements to board the animal until the appointment, or advise them to keep the pet and child separated until you can talk further.

Defining what problems can occur

Most aggression to children is caused by fear. Cats may be fearful of newborn infants and usually react by hiding. With dogs, aggression usually appears when the baby becomes mobile. Even dogs that have a history of behaving well with visiting children may show some aggression to toddlers they live with. This is why it is so important to have measures in place to separate children from pets before problems arise (see "Setting up barriers" ).