Pets & New Children

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By: Dr. Jack Stephens

There are many reasons why people should not consider “getting rid” of a pet when a new child enters the home. Unfortunately, this happens all too often with pets that have provided years of companionship. They become disposable. The pet owner mistakenly believes that a new child and a pet are incompatible. They may be concerned that the added responsibilities will be too much for them, or that the pet might injure the child. However, the many advantages for pets in households with children far outweigh these concerns; usually, those who consider disposing of their pet are unaware of the many positive benefits that result from pets.

It now documented and scientifically proven that pets are good for our health and well-being. The simple act of petting a dog will improve a human’s internal biochemistry in several ways. Interaction with a dog or other pet increases certain hormones such as prolactin (the feel-good hormone) and oxytocin (the warm-feeling hormone). These are interesting bodily changes in our chemistry, especially given that these hormones are higher in women and even higher in women with newborn infants! Prolactin is responsible primarily for milk let-down in nursing mothers, and oxytocin is primarily responsible for the birthing stimulus. In other words, Mother Nature gives women higher levels of these hormones, so they will be more nurturing towards infants. Over the eons of interacting with animals, this same biological benefit was also being developed by safe, quiet interacting with animals for both men and women. If pets provide us with higher levels of the very same hormones, ones that cause us to be more nurturing and to generally feel better, why remove the stimulus?

Pets also decrease cortisol, the stress hormone. Blood levels of the primary hormone that can be measured when we are stressed (cortisol) actually decrease when we pet a pet. It has been a long time since I raised my four children, and I loved them dearly when they were small; but I can tell you it was stressful being a parent. Why remove the pet that actually reduces your stress and has the other proven benefits of reducing your blood pressure?

Additionally, pets increase certain neurotransmitters and other favorable chemicals that allow your nerves to work more efficiently and effectively. Pets improve Serotonin levels, decreasing depression. Think about all the post-partum depression that occurs and how having a pet may play a role in alleviating depression. It has been well documented – and I have personally seen many times – that obtaining a pet will lessen or even alleviate depression. I have witnessed people eliminate antidepressants completely by the simple act of acquiring a companion pet. Notice I said “companion pet,” because the pet needs to interact with you daily and be part of your life in order to obtain the maximum health benefits. If a household pet, such as a dog or cat is not feasible, consider an aquarium. There are even measurable benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, that have been observed with the interaction of pet fish and people.

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Household pets, especially older pets, should be introduced with the new child, just as you would introduce the new infant to a sibling. After all, we don’t call pets our babies and treat them like children for nothing; and – as with human siblings – there can be some jealousy of a new member of the family. Proper introduction can head that issue off and prevent a negative association with the new member.

Allow the pet to see and sniff the new family member. Praise and pet the pet as you do the introduction, and always follow up with a treat. A few episodes of positive reinforcement with praise and petting, followed up by a treat, will soon associate the new family member with rewards. This same pattern should be used for any new family member, whether four-legged or two-legged. This should work in most all cases, if not; consult a professional behaviorist for advice. There is a solution to almost all situations.

Most pets are simply curious about a new family member. After all, this has been their household, and anything new in the environment demands their attention. Pets, like humans, need to assimilate and understand how change affects them. They have questions, which, while they cannot be expressed in language, are important to resolve through positive reinforcement and close supervision at the introduction.

Pets, like very small children, are curious and need to know how to avoid anxiety, frustration and undesirable results. Also, pets, like children, cannot express, nor can they understanding in our language, what is going on. In other words, you can not simply tell a dog how wonderful it is that the new baby is here and expect him to understand. Once their curiosity has been satisfied and they receive positive feedback for their curiosity, things will return to normal in most households, and nearly all pets will accept, if not welcome, the new member of the family. It is important to understand that a pet’s behavior is a direct result of your actions and reinforcement through the positive feedback mechanisms of praise and reward.

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In our hectic lives pets can be a welcome, non-judgmental distraction from our stresses of the day. We have many demands, and a new child, although most welcomed, does come with stress. There are more concerns regarding how they are doing, their comfort, feeding, bathing, and changing of diapers, for instance, that increase the parents’ work load. The argument that adopting the pet out will relieve a few more burdens or chores that take time away is not valid, because the pet does not take that much time away. And – as we know from the positive biochemical and hormonal changes pets provide – valuable improvements in our lives because of our pets allow us to be even better parents.

The old school of thought that keeping children, especially infants, away from pets was helpful for preventing allergies has now been scientifically shown to be wrong. Evidence supports that early exposure to pets is actually better at preventing future allergies and non-exposure causes greater allergies for many children. Having pets around infants may actually improve their chances of having fewer allergies, certainly to pet dander, anyway.

In life, we owe certain loyalties to individuals, our family, society, the community and our government for the benefits they provide us. There is no less loyalty owed to a companion pet who has been there for you and been part of your family. You owe them an allegiance for the value they have brought to your life. Changes in your family situation do not change your loyalty to your other family members. It does not change your loyalty to society or to your community, nor should it change the loyalty you have to your pet. We are the protectors of children and pets. The creator granted us dominion over animals, but with that dominion comes responsibility. All things are temporary and transient, but how you deal with life and others is not. Pets give us unconditional love and loyalty. That loyalty should be reciprocated and not abdicated when family situations change.

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I realize your pet may not be a Lassie that will save your child as Lassie did for Timmy many times, but it does happen. Pets commonly protect children introduced to them when they are mature. As the children age, many animals bond to children in their homes, in a manner that is still to be quantified. In fact, many breeds of dogs were specially bred to protect the children of emperors and nobles. There are many stories of pets protecting children and families. Cats have awoken their owners when a fire was present in the home, saving their owners’ lives. A pot bellied pig, when its owner suffered an incapacitating stroke, went into the street and would not move until a person followed her to her stricken master. Dogs have pulled children out of lakes and pools.

Dogs and horses have saved children from poisonous snakes. Even birds can be early warning signals for toxic fumes. Remember the canaries in the coal mines? Coal miners placed canaries in the mine shafts to warn of deadly toxic gases, by giving their lives as an early warning. Now instruments have been designed to take the canary’s place and measure deadly gases in the air.

One never knows when disaster will strike, or what form danger could come in for your child. Why not have trusted pet companions that can sense and know things you do not and can be there when you are not to protect your child?

There are many positive benefits of companion pets for you and your child. With a few easy steps, you can be assured of a good relationship between you, your pet and your new child or family member. The benefits of keeping the pet far outweigh the attitude that when new family members come, pets must go.

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