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What are the pros and cons of having a family pet? 

click to enlarge Dr. Lewis First - COURTESY OF UVM MEDICAL CENTER
  • Courtesy of UVM Medical Center
  • Dr. Lewis First

KidsVT: How do pets affect children's health?

Dr. Lewis First: Pets have been shown in some studies to lower blood pressure and improve one's mood. Pets also allow kids to get out and exercise. A pet can help when a child feels lonely. Some studies suggest that young children who are exposed to pets tend to have fewer infections early in life and are less likely to be allergic to the pet itself.

KVT: Does it matter whether the pet has fur or hair?

LF: Allergies to pets are not due to the fur itself. They're due to a protein in the animal's skin, dander, feathers or urine. When infants are exposed to those proteins early in life, it helps train their immune system. It's almost like vaccinating your child against common allergens. This may be more true with dogs versus cats, but studies suggest that both are beneficial. On the other hand, sometimes pet allergies aren't due to the pet itself but to the dust, mold and other allergens the pet carries.

KVT: What if there's a strong family history of pet allergies?

LF: Then a family may want to think twice before introducing a pet into the home. But if the pet is already there, and a child develops an allergy, it doesn't mean that the animal automatically has to go. You just have to find ways for your child to deal with the allergic reactions. Your child's healthcare professional can offer suggestions.

KVT: Such as?

LF: Dealing with a pet allergy could involve allergy medication, shots or more simple interventions such as not having the pet sleep in the same room as the child, vacuuming frequently, getting rid of carpeting and having a good air filtration system in the house. Probably the safest, most hypoallergenic pet would be fish — except if you have tropical fish in a heated tank in a humidified room. That can breed mold, and mold can trigger allergies.

KVT: Should certain pets be avoided because of the diseases they carry?

LF: Exotic animals may be fun, but they run the risk of carrying diseases. Reptiles such as snakes, turtles, lizards and iguanas could be the salmonella "poster pets." Baby chicks can also carry salmonella.

KVT: Do rodents such as mice, gerbils and guinea pigs make good pets for kids?

LF: They can, but they can also carry salmonella and ringworm. Sometimes they bite and often don't hold children's interest for very long. For the most part, they're not high risk for rabies, though there are some germs that can be carried by rodents that can cause swollen lymph nodes, fevers and achiness, but that's rarer. Ferrets tend to bite if they're not well handled, and their bites can be severe. Obviously, you don't want to bring anything that's roaming the woods into the house, as there's always the risk of rabies. Finally, most rodents are nocturnal, so they tend to be awake when children are asleep and sleep when children are awake.

KVT: Are some kids too young to be around pets?

LF: No, but parents should do their research on animals that will enjoy being around young children. A seasoned dog that's accustomed to children is more apt to be docile than a new puppy, which can be feistier and less tolerant. Parents also need to teach kids about animal safety generally — kids shouldn't approach a dog they don't know, pull an animal's tail or take food away while an animal is eating. The most important rule: A parent should never leave a young child unsupervised around a pet.

KVT: How should parents prepare a pet for the arrival of a new baby?

Bring home the baby's diaper from the hospital for the pet to smell, to get used to the scent around the crib. If the pet was sleeping in the room where you're setting up the nursery, move the pet out early enough so it gets used to sleeping elsewhere.

KVT: What should parents do if a child gets a bite or scratch?

LF: Any bite or scratch should be well irrigated and cleaned out. The ones I worry about the most are cat bites. They almost always need an antibiotic because these are usually puncture wounds into deep tissue, where you can't really clean them out well and they run a high risk of infection. A dog is more likely to gnash and what you get is what you can see. If parents have a concern, they should talk to their health care professional, who can check the child's immunization status and give further guidance on whether stitches or antibiotics are required.

KVT: Any final advice to parents?

LF: Even if your child is asking for a pet, don't expect them to take care of it. Parents are going to remain the pet's chief caretaker at least until your child is school-age, if not an adolescent. But overall, the benefits of pet ownership far outweigh the risks.


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