Ensuring a behaviorally healthy pet-child relationship - Veterinary Medicine
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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.


Setting up barriers

As stated above, most of the problems seen between pets and babies involve crawling children (e.g. 6 months and older) and toddlers, not immobile infants. Once the pets adjust to the owners' new focus on this other creature in the house, they usually ignore the baby. So it's a good idea to advise expectant parents to look ahead to things that may change (e.g. the addition of baby gates) as the baby begins to crawl and walk, since this time comes faster than they may anticipate.

Dogs and cats should be fed in locations where it is easy for parents to monitor what is in their bowls and if children are nearby. This may mean feeding behind barriers and switching from free-choice to meal feeding. If there has been any history of the pet aggressively guarding food from other animals or people, feeding should be behind a barrier, and long-lasting treats (e.g. rawhides, stuffed hollow toys, marrow bones) must be available only when the pet is physically separated from the child.

During car rides, owners should also keep their babies separated from pets. I recommend that pets, especially dogs, be secured in a carrier or by a barrier or a safety harness and seat belt whenever they are in the car, which also protects them in case of an accident.

If clients have any thought about co-sleeping with a baby, the pets should get used to sleeping away from the owners' bed before the baby arrives. They should also provide resting areas that allow the pets to get away from curious children.

In general, pets, especially dogs, should learn to be separated from their owners. No dog should ever be left alone with a small child. Essentially, this means that either a parent must always be holding the baby or there must be barriers set up so parents can safely allow infants to spend time in an apparatus such as a bouncy seat or a swing. Dogs should get used to having the owners around but not having access to them. They should be rewarded for being good and quiet on the other side of a barrier from the owners (e.g. behind a baby gate or in a crate). These rewards can be active (tossing treats to the dog or walking over and petting the dog) or passive (giving a food-dispensing toy to the dog when the separation begins).


Having pets in the household can help teach children responsibility and compassion for animals, and pets can be wonderful companions and playmates for children. But as veterinarians, we've all seen examples in which an adult's behavior toward animals teaches children to be neglectful, or a child's or a pet's behavior makes for a serious mismatch. Not every household is right for every pet and not every pet is right for every household. On the contrary, the presence of young children in a home is a risk factor for relinquishment of dogs to shelters.1

Occasionally, parents will turn to you for advice on pet selection, but usually you are presented with a pet that is already in the home. Ideally, parents will come to their pets' veterinarian for assistance as soon as they notice behavior problems. Instead, you may be faced with the unenviable task of raising questions about the pet's behavior toward children based on exam-room observations.

To avoid problems, children must be taught how to handle pets gently. They must also be taught that not all animals are alike. Just because their family's dog tolerates being climbed on, poked, and prodded, it does not mean that this is safe behavior with any other dog. Parents need to be taught not to encourage children to treat any animal in this way, regardless of whether the pet tolerates it and regardless of whether it is the family pet. Often the children who get bitten are those who live with an incredibly tolerant pet. These children don't learn how to behave appropriately around pets and are bitten at a friend's or relative's house where less-forgiving animals reside.


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