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Growing Up with Pets Can Be Special for Children
But Parents Need To Do Research, Take Precautions

Lynn Buzhardt, DVM
The Animal Center of Zachary
Zachary, LA

Four-pawed friends are part of the family portrait. As loyal companions and play partners, pets and children can share special bonds. But parents must do the proper homework and groundwork to ensure a healthy relationship between their children and pets.

For instance, how do you introduce your dog to a new baby in the house? When your baby becomes mobile, what special precautions should you take to ensure your child's and dog's safety? How do you teach your young children to be responsible pet caregivers? How can you protect your family against common parasites that can be transmitted from animals to humans?

These and other important questions are answered in a new comprehensive Web site: GrowingUpWithPets.com. The Web site is a valuable resource to parents on how to nurture healthy, happy relationships between children and dogs. It provides advice from leading pediatricians and veterinarians on everything from choosing the proper canine breed for children to helping children cope with the death of a pet.

"Pets have always been very special to children and are important for childhood development, but parents need to play an active role in ensuring a healthy environment and proper interaction between children and pets," says Dr. Eugenia Marcus, MD, FAAP, a private practice physician and specialist in pediatric health care at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, Mass. "There are facts to consider and steps to be taken before either the baby arrives or the family decides to purchase a dog."

Expectant Parents Who Currently Own a Pet
For instance, Dr. Marcus says expectant parents who already have a dog in the house need to prepare their pet for the baby's arrival long before the infant arrives home.

Dogs can sense change in mom's body and alterations that are being made to the home, such as preparing the nursery and having extra guests in the home. Pets are adaptable, but they have to be weaned. You can't have a relationship with your pet and then say "the relationship has changed, too bad for you." Dogs can get jealous and show it through destructive behavior. Especially devoted pets can actually develop physiological problems from lack of love. There are several things you can do, however, to prepare your pet and ensure a happy homecoming with your new baby:

" If a dog sleeps in the same bed with you, you must decide if this will change when the infant comes home and prepare the dog by encouraging it to sleep on the floor a few months before baby's arrival.
" Take your pet to your veterinarian for a routine health exam and vaccinations.
" Consider spaying or neutering your pet. Sterilized pets typically have fewer health problems and are calmer and less likely to bite.
" Train your pet to remain calm on the floor beside you until you invite him onto your lap, which will soon cradle a newborn.
GrowingUpWithPets.com has much more advice on this topic. The most critical thing to remember is if your pet has a history of guarding its food, hunting for small prey, escaping to roam free, resistance to obedience training or undisciplined or wild behavior toward people, proceed with extreme caution in planning to introduce him to the new baby.

Parents with Toddlers
Parents with toddlers know how greatly things change when a child becomes mobile. Suddenly, what was once harmless can pose a real danger to your child's safety. Most problems that arise between a dog and a child develop when the child reaches the crawling and walking stages. When the child starts to toddle, even the friendliest of family pets might feel threatened. What was previously a little being that mom and dad carried around is now living and moving in the dog's floor-level realm.

Toddlers and young children who are learning to walk and talk can learn a lot from very closely supervised interaction with the family pet. Try to involve your children in very simple dog care and training activities:

" Have your child help you feed the dog - children that have mastered some language skills can learn to give the dog the "sit" command before you put the bowl down. Small children can be taught to scoop food into the dog's food dish.
" Let your child help brush the dog as you hold the collar and feed him a few treats.
" If the dog is small enough, teach your child how to properly pick him up.
Teaching your toddler to respect animals, and your pets in particular, is a valuable lesson that will serve him across many aspects of life. To toddlers, treating a pet with respect is as simple as the Golden Rule, but there are many ways to approach this:
" Read books about animals to your toddler to help him understand that pets have feelings too.
" While your child is watching, rub your dog behind the ears, talking in a low soothing voice to your pet.
" Communicate off-limits behavior. Teach toddlers that tail- or ear-pulling and poking eyes is not acceptable behavior and that a gentle touch is needed for petting.
" Choose key words to communicate gentle behavior like "Easy," "Gentle," or "Nice." Practice using the words with a toddler while demonstrating gentle behavior on a stuffed animal.

How to Select the Right Breed for Your Family
As a parent, you want your child to be safe around your dog. You want to know which breeds are good with children and which aren't. The truth is, all dogs have the potential to bite, and a dog's breed is only one of many factors that affect temperament and behavior. The best dogs for kids are those which receive proper socialization, human
training, exercise and attention; are given adequate food, water, shelter and veterinary care; and are sterilized and safely confined.

That said, many breeds do exhibit characteristics that make them better at being a safe, kid-friendly family dog. GrowingUpWithPets.com provides a good overview on the pros and cons of various breeds, as well as advice on assessing a dog's temperament, deciding whether to adopt a shelter pet, and training tips.

"Worms" can be Transmitted to Humans
There are five key parasites that pose a threat to your dog's health: fleas, heartworms, roundworms, hookworms (A. caninum) and whipworms. What people commonly refer to as "worms" are really internal parasites that live in the heart or intestinal tract of the host animal.

Many internal parasites can be life-threatening to your dog, and most people don't realize that some of these parasites can be transferred from pets to humans, which is known as zoonosis. Children are especially susceptible to zoonotic infection because they are always grabbing, touching and sticking their hands in their mouths without regard to whether they are clean.

People also don't realize just how prevalent internal parasites are. A national survey of veterinarians showed that more than one out of three dogs (36 percent) was infected by one or more of the three most common gastrointestinal nematodes - whipworms, roundworms and hookworms. Heartworms are also a serious year-round threat. More than 27 million dogs in the United States are not on a heartworm preventive, and approximately 244,000 test positive for heartworm each year.

Prevention of internal parasites is preferred over treatment because it reduces the risk of zoonosis, is less expensive and more convenient, and is obviously much better for the dog.

There are several simple ways to protect your pet from internal parasites:
" Use a pooper scooper. As feces breaks down, eggs form and seep into the soil.
" Feed your pets cooked or prepared food - never raw meat - and provide fresh water daily.
" Have your pet's stool sample examined by your veterinarian every 6-12 months.

" Ask your veterinarian to place your pets on preventive flea and internal parasite medication as soon as possible after birth or adoption.
According to Link Welborn, DVM, of the Animal & Bird Hospital in Tampa, many people don't realize that they need to protect their pets from internal parasites year round. He says a significant portion of the U.S. experiences heartworm transmission through mosquitoes during most of the year, and pets can be exposed to roundworms and hookworms (A. caninum) throughout the year.

"Using a preventive internal medication is even more important in households with infants and small children," according to Welborn. "Internal parasites can be transmitted to infants and children from something as simple as rubbing their hands on the pet's fur."

"Parents certainly should not be scared about having pets around their children - they should welcome the opportunity," Dr. Marcus says. "They just need to know the facts."

Dr. Lynn Buzhardt is a veterinarian and co-owner of The Animal Center, Inc., in Zachary, La. Buzhardt has been a practicing veterinarian for 25 years. As an advocate of the human-companion animal bond, she has been recognized by the human medical community for her seminars that focus on integrating infants into pet-owning households. She is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Louisiana Veterinary Medical Association and is a board member of the American Heartworm Society.

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