Veterinary advice to expectant parents [of human children] Part 2: Keep the dog... but with reservations
Advice to the neurotic, clean-freaky new parent: You don”t have to find your dog(s) a new home now that baby is on the way. But keep reading if you’d like some commonsensical guidance on combining human and canine husbandry in your household.
Finally, there’s a study that proves my Cuban grandmother wrong (not to mention all those surgical mask-wielding new parents): Dogs really can make a home a healthier place for growing children—at least in terms of their lower respiratory health.
Now there’s new research out showing that households with multiple dogs produced sub-one-year-old humans with fewer lower respiratory symptoms such as wheezing. The study (out of the University of Cincinnati and published in a well-respected journal of allergy and immunology) effectively demonstrated that owning pets conferred a protective effect against the development of common respiratory symptoms in infants and young children.
This research is part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that much of the rise in asthma and allergy symptoms among humans in recent decades may be attributable to our scrupulously clean ways. Developed nations like ours (how I question that term!) seem most afflicted by the increased incidence of these pathologies, thereby lending even more credence to the cleaner-is-not-better-for-baby concept.
I alert all new and expectant parents to the good news so they have just a little less stress to deal with (not that the burden of cumulative parental guilt won’t overwhelm them anyway). But that doesn’t mean that all’s rosy in the world of the new parent dog owner.
And here’s an appropriate anecdote to illustrate a potential pitfall:
A mildly pregnant client walks into my office with a new dog. She’s one of my favorite clients: smart, interesting, lives for her dogs and fosters the occasional off-the-street foundling. This time it’s a little different. The lucky stray was a perfect gentleman—until I touched his ears. He went a little berserk—to put it mildly. We calmed him down, applied a muzzle and went back to work. Similar reactions ensued when we touched his feet and restrained him more effectively to draw blood. This was clearly a dog with a well-developed case of dominance aggression.
It’s times like these when I keep my mouth shut until all the evidence has been gathered and the tech is out of the room. I then tell this client that she needs to understand that, nice as this dog seems under most conditions, this dog has a dominance aggression problem beyond the normal in-hospital issues (perhaps you had to see his reaction to feel confident saying this) and that she might want to consider homing him elsewhere before she has the baby.
The owner takes this well but comes back a week later with her cat. It has a bite wound on its tail base. Now—this is an only cat in a household of dogs. And she never sees the outdoors. There’s never been an incident until now. Who’s the culprit? You do the math.
After fixing up the kitty I again reiterated my comment on the new dog’s inadvisability in the household. This time I pushed on the predatory aggression button.
Predatory aggression is an especially dangerous form of aggression for human infants. Dogs that prey indiscriminately on cats and other small animals are at high risk for hurting newborn infants. As most of you well know, human infants don’t look human—yet. And dogs should not be expected to feel any differently.
Six months seems to be the canine human-recognition cutoff age since babies of that age can sit up, babble and move more like normal people. Before that, the inhuman crying and twitchiness of an infant can set of prey-alarm bells in a dog’s brain.
I’m not trying to scare anyone needlessly, but dogs are dogs. Their cognition is limited by their own biology. So I consider it a critical part of my job to advise new parents to maintain 100% supervision when dogs and babies are in a room together.
Furthermore, if there’s any indication of aggression in the dog I recommend a well-respected trainer for temperament testing and dog-safety consultation. And that’s exactly what I told this client with the dominance and predatory aggressive dog.
You may think I’m a serious alarmist (on the order of the surgery mask types) but when I had my own human baby I was aware that my parents’ terrier suffered from wild predatory aggression. So I never took the risk. Every single time I took the baby to my parents’ house the dog wore a comfortable and protective muzzle. She got used to it and never once thereafter seemed put out by having to wear it.
We still maintained the 100% supervision (muzzles are not sure-fire methods of protection) but we all felt better in case of a sudden attack. Of course, nothing ever happened. But could we live with ourselves if it had?
Some non-dog people might read this and say, “Sure, my kids might suffer less asthma but is it worth the risk?” Those of us who live with the benefits of dogs on a daily basis have a quick, one-word riposte: “Yes!”
These non-doggers are not about to go out and get a dog anyway (nor should they, especially when they’re about to undertake perhaps the biggest challenge in their adult lives), but this post is not for them.
This post is for those of you who appreciate your dogs so much you’re willing to go to any lengths to make things safe for your human offspring. And, now that I think about it, this post is also for my Cuban grandmother and the surgical mask-wielding parents among you. After all, a little “I told you so” is always fun.