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Kids and Pets: A Pediatrician’s Tips

Posted on Sep 16, 2014

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Kids and pets – this pair seems like a natural fit. Pets for children can bring many health benefits, and they make loving companions. They also provide an excellent opportunity for your child to learn responsibility and commitment, says Cara Barone, M.D., a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. But before Fido or Fluffy joins the family, there are a few things to consider. Here, Dr. Barone answers common questions about children and pets.

Is it true that pets can improve children’s health?

Some current studies suggest that children who grow up in homes with pets may enjoy better health. For example, a small study published in Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ journal, suggests that children living with dogs had fewer respiratory tract infections during the first year of their lives. The study also suggests that living with pets during infancy could give a child better resistance to infectious respiratory illnesses throughout childhood.

There are other health benefits, too. Snuggling with or stroking a pet can help lower blood pressure and stress levels. And playing and running around with a dog or taking it for a walk can help keep your child active.

Can pets cause illnesses?

Yes, pets can potentially pass on diseases to people. For example, some animals carry the salmonella bacteria, including baby chicks, ducklings, reptiles (such as lizards, snakes and turtles), amphibians (such as frogs and salamanders) and fish. If you have young children under five, you should avoid getting any of these as pets and make sure your young child doesn’t touch or handle them in other places, such as petting zoos, preschools or zoos.

Cats, primarily cat feces, can transmit toxoplasmosis bacteria, but this is mainly a concern for pregnant women. Wild animals can also carry dangerous diseases. Teach your child never to touch or approach wild animals or consider bringing one home as a pet.

The bottom line is that your child should always wash her hands thoroughly after she has petted an animal or touched anything that has come into contact with your pet, such as food and water bowls or bottles, their food, toys, cage or feces.

I’d like to get a pet for my child. What should I consider?

You should wait until your child is mature and responsible enough to help care for the animal and handle it well. Usually, children reach that point around five or six years of age. Use these tips to make sure your child stays healthy and safe around animals:

  1. Teach your child how to approach pets and when to give them space; for example, when they are eating, drinking or sleeping.
  2. Make sure your child treats pets gently and kindly and doesn’t ever tease them. Teasing or inappropriate treatment can provoke an animal to bite or scratch your child.
  3. Don’t leave your young child alone with an animal at any time.
  4. Make sure your child knows to always wash her hands after touching your pet, especially before eating and drinking.
  5. Always vaccinate your pets, particularly cats and dogs, against rabies.
  6. Cat and dog bites can be very dangerous. If your child is bitten and the wound is bleeding, see a doctor immediately.

My child has allergies. Can we still have a pet?

If you know your child or another family member is allergic to animals or has asthma that is triggered by animals, you should probably avoid getting a furry pet. Otherwise, your child could be in constant discomfort, which is no fun for anyone in the family.

Although we associate allergies with furry animals, it’s actually the pet’s dander and saliva that trigger the symptoms. Some dogs are less likely to trigger allergies, so they are called hypoallergenic. But the truth is, no dog is 100 percent nonallergenic. Your child may have an allergic reaction even to a hypoallergenic breed.

If you already have a much-loved pet that you don’t want to give up, here are some strategies that can help alleviate allergy symptoms:

  • Keep your pet outside.
  • Make sure your pet stays outside of your child’s bedroom.
  • Wash your pet weekly in lukewarm water.
  • Use a HEPA filter to purify the air in the house.
  • Vacuum, dust and clean frequently to remove pet fur.

Barone-Cara-2013-web Cara Barone, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.