Isn’t it reassuring to know that having a pet can give your child access to incredible benefits and well-rounded development from a young age. But what about the health risks, the hygiene and the safety, you ask? Well, we posed the question to one of India’s top paediatricians, Dr R K.Anand, the emeritus director of the department of pediatrics at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre. He told us what’s already shared in his widely acclaimed bestseller, Dr R K Anand’s Guide To Child Care, “One should not blindly advocate either extreme view, as not every child may benefit from having pets around the house. A young child suffering from asthma or some other respiratory disease, or one who is already highly allergic may experience acute physical distress if a pet is brought into the house. However, if the lady is pregnant and has a pet she may keep it because exposure to potential allergens very early in life may actually diminish the risk of long-term reactions to these allergens. This includes dogs and cat dander.”
And he’s not the only one saying this. According to a 2012 study published in the American journal Pediatrics, kids who grew up in homes with pets tended to be healthier than those who did not. It even declared that the findings of the study indicated that they had fewer respiratory-tract symptoms and infections. They, too, corroborated the fact that even at a prenatal stage, early indoor pet exposure tends to reduce a child’s risk of developing allergies. This could also be because a child with a pet is exposed to so many different kinds of bacteria found in the environment in general. And it actually forces the child’s immune system to adapt at an early age, instead of inappropriately overreacting and resulting in allergies later in life.
But all the doctors in the world cannot possibly have the same calming effect on parents as much as a mother’s own personal account inspires. Shabana Raikar Sen, corporate lawyer and mother to four-year-old Neel, was born into a household where pets were already around and an indispensable part of the family. Her son Neel also arrived in a home where Zoya, a super large but super friendly Bull Mastiff was already in residence. Shabana recalls how she ensured that at first Zoya was allowed to hang around the room to sate her curiosity about the newest little member of the pack but never really left alone with the baby or allowed to physically interact more than just a lick of tiny Neel’s tinier feet. And as Neel grew up and the bond between baby and dog strengthened, she was happy to note that the two were often inseparable, and even acted like siblings, complete with rivalry, jealousy and tantrums. “It helps the child grow up to be more intuitive, they can tell when the animal is sad, tired, sick or angry and they feel compelled to show compassion or give them space. This makes them more open to sharing as well, and that’s important,” says Shabana.
R STANDS FOR RESPONSIBILITY
Pets can be the bringers of so much happiness but you need to remember that like your children, they are a lifelong commitment and you are responsible for their well-being and safety too. And it goes without saying that if you plan to bring a pet home to your child, please consider adopting instead of purchasing.
Teach your child with your actions that pets are not toys but living, breathing, sentient beings who deserve love and care. Always first discuss the decision to get a pet with your family before doing so to avoid it straining anyone’s finances, relationships or independence. ■
THE DOS AND DON’TS OF A PEACEFUL CO-EXISTENCE
Not every pet has a predictable temperament or will react the same way to a young child, which is why you need to keep in mind this quick checklist of tips if you find yourself in this unique situation:
1. Make sure that hygiene practices are observed before toys go back and forth between baby and pet in case one of them puts it in their mouth.
2. Never leave the baby and pet alone, unsupervised, even if they are on the best of terms. Both babies and animals can be unpredictable and you’re asking for double trouble because either one could set the other off and result in an accident.
3. Playtime with baby and pet is especially tricky, so watch out for when the games get too rough and break it up immediately before either one hurts the other, unintentionally. Teach each one to leave the room if they get annoyed or displeased with something the other did rather than retaliate. Be fair to both because scolding or punishing only either one will create hostility and resentment.
4. Stay calm even if something small goes wrong. You being anxious or freaking out can set off the pet who will pick up on your nervous energy or be alarmed at the high pitch or volume of your voice. In this scenario, even if the animal doesn’t intend to harm the child they may do so inadvertently in fear or confusion.
5. Take into account various factors when letting the two interact: the pet’s personality, behavioural track record, tendency to get agitated, their size, and their age.
6. Groom your pet regularly to reduce shedding indoors, this means regular activities like daily brushing and for dogs, a weekly bath.
7. After the baby arrives, don’t ignore the pet. Instead, try and spend alone quality time just with the pet to reassure them of their place in your heart. This calms them down a lot and ensures there’s no misplaced anxiety or jealousy issues that crop up later and endanger the child.