Seattle Humane
Cher, whose owners gave her up after the arrival of a new baby, is now waiting to be adopted from the Humane Society of Seattle/King County in Bellevue, Wash.
updated 8/5/2004 8:02:49 PM ET 2004-08-06T00:02:49

Cher is a brown tabby that prefers being the only pet at home and is sassy to dogs, other cats and new people. At just 4-years-old, Cher has been curled up in her cage for nearly four months waiting to be adopted from the Humane Society of Seattle/King County in Bellevue, Wash. The reason for surrender: A new baby.

The description on her adoption chart sounds a lot like other cats. She’s loving, affectionate, and "can be a bit of a diva." But it also mentions that she has scratched a baby. While the story behind the incident is unknown, a scratch or bite from a pet can be a major fear for expecting parents.

Every year thousands of pets are placed in shelters or given away because families with babies may be scared of the what-ifs, less tolerable of their pets’ bad habits, or confused about odd or disruptive behavior. But pet owners who plan ahead and prepare their beloved dog or cat early for a new baby can calm many fears and prevent future problems.

Cats OK during pregnancy
Many women still mistakenly believe that owning a cat during pregnancy is dangerous because of the risk of toxoplasmosis, an infection that can lead to miscarriage or birth defects.

“People automatically assume toxoplasmosis with cats, but raw vegetables — even gardening without gloves — can put you at risk as well,” says Lisa Balyeat, shelter services assistant at the Human Society of Seattle/King County. Balyeat, who owns a dog and cat, is expecting her second child and says her doctor never told her to get rid of her animals.

“What is known is that most cases (of toxoplasmosis) are coming from undercooked or raw meat. There is no proof that cat owners have any higher incidence,” says Nancy Peterson, companion animal issues specialist at the Humane Society of the United States.

Outdoor cats that eat rodents are at highest risk for the disease, but even if infected, a cat must pass the disease to its feces and the fecal matter must sit for one to five days in order to become infected. “If people can commit to scooping once a day, it’s really not a risk as far as a cat goes,” says Balyeat.

In order for a pregnant woman to catch the disease from her cat, she needs to ingest the cat’s feces directly, which can then be transmitted to the womb and to the baby. But by taking just a few precautions, such as wearing gloves while cleaning the litter box or giving the responsibility to someone else, a woman can easily stay safe.

Concern over behavior
Many expecting parents — and future grandparents — are concerned about the myth that a cat is able to suck the breath out of a baby. Experts insist this belief is completely untrue.

However, the myth may have originated because cats are attracted to warm things. And a cat that snuggles up against a warm, sleeping baby for a nap can potentially smother it.

“The best thing to do is to keep the cat out of the baby’s room when the baby is sleeping. You just don’t want to take that chance,” says Nikole Sledd, an animal behaviorist and founder of Creature Teachers, which provides training, behavioral modification and other services for pets in the San Francisco East Bay area.

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Setting up the crib about a month before the baby comes home and placing objects the animal doesn't like, such as aluminum foil, cardboard covered in double-stick tape or balloons, will help keep cats away and they'll be more likely to avoid the crib later later on, says Sledd. In addition, a protective tent made to fit over a baby’s crib can help keep pets out and the baby in.

It’s also important to avoid the potential for scratches. Children who are more mobile may want to reach out for cats or pull their tails, causing cats to flee into hiding or scratch out in defense. Offering a high place where cats can escape will protect both cat and baby.

“We urge folks to set their homes up in zones so there is an area the kitty can feel safe. We also recommend that they offer their cats high places, perches or tall scratching posts … that give their cat the opportunity to be in the room where everything is going on, but be up high out of the reaches of a baby or toddler,” says Balyeat.

Judge dogs on individual character
And while cat owners may fear their pet will scratch or smother their child, dog owners may be concerned about biting. Among the 800,000 Americans who seek medical attention for dog bites every year, half are children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pittbulls, Rottweilers and other dogs bred for protection are more commonly thought of as dangerous, but small dogs can also pose a threat. They may have more difficulties adjusting to a new baby in the home because in general, they may be more timid and nervous.

“People keep smaller dogs because they think they are more manageable, but they can be just as terrorizing … It all depends on the breed and the background of the dog,” says Nancy McKenney, CEO of the Humane Society of Seattle/King County.

It’s important for pet owners and future pet owners to remember that there is no specific breed that gets along best with young children. To find out how well a pet will act with kids, it’s best to examine a dog’s individual personality and history.

"You want a dog that is tolerant of everything. Roll it over, play with its paws, stick your fingers in its mouth and do things a little kid would do. If a dog sits there happily wagging through all of that, that’s your dog,” suggests Sledd.

Stressed out and acting out
It's important to remember that a new baby brings new smells and sounds that can stress out pets. Since animals rely heavily on smells, new odors may cause a pet to start urine marking in an effort to makes things smell "normal" again, says Donna Mlinek, animal behavior education coordinator at the Dumb Friends League, a shelter and educational outreach center in Denver.

Besides introducing pets early-on to items like baby powder and dirty diapers, new parents should bring home an article from the hospital with the baby's smell before the child comes home.

Products like Feliway Comfort Zone for cats and D.A.P. for dogs can reportedly help ease a pet's anxiety by delivering comforting pheromones that are similar to the chemicals put out by a lactating female dog or a cat rubbing its cheek against an object or person. And “Preparing Fido," a CD made especially for expecting parents with pets, can help an animal get used to the sounds a baby makes. It includes tracks called “Breathing, Grunting … and Squeaking Baby” and “Screaming Baby,” tunes that may help prepare more than just the family dog.

For more information on preparing pets to live with children, many local shelters and animal-advocacy group Web sites offer answers to frequently asked questions. And always remember that you can teach an old dog — or cat — new tricks, says McKenney.

“The key with any family is that it’s going to be disruptive for a while, but you can get through it if you plan ahead of time,” she says.

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