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Why It’s a Bad Idea to Get Rid of a Pet Because a Baby is on the Way

By Piper Hoffman — February 03, 2014

When a neighbor of ours got pregnant, her obstetrician told her to get rid of the cat who had been part of her family for eight years. He said if the cat was around, the baby might have an increased chance of developing an allergy to her.

The cat was packed off to a shelter.

A few years later, at a Rosh Hashanah dinner, I was seated next to a prominent Manhattan OB/GYN who advises all his pregnant clients to get rid of their cats lest they contract some obscure disease that I can’t find a trace of on Google. He is adamant on this point. His patients, all of whom have turned over a large wad of out-of-pocket cash for his advice, tend to comply.

Many dogs have suffered the same fate, abandoned and replaced by a brand-new human out of parental fear that maybe, who knows, but what if the dog hurts the baby? As a result, “it is not uncommon to find unwanted animals at the shelter whose paperwork lists ‘new baby’ as the reason for the surrender.” When new people are born, companion animals are abandoned, often to be killed.

Are expectant parents and their doctors tough-minded pragmatists or irresponsible and cruel?

Expectant Parents: Keep Your Cats and Dogs

Dogs and cats can be wonderful companions for babies and toddlers, not to mention creating even more excuses for parents to post photos of their progeny on Facebook and Flickr:

baby1

Photo credit: Brandon Atkinson

 

baby2

Photo credit: Russ

 

baby3

Photo credit: Sarbagyastha

 

2009 0811 Finny & Zippy 2

Photo credit: rsgranne

 

baby5

Photo credit: Nathan Bittinger

Canards that cats in particular are hazardous to babies go back at least as far as the bubbe meisis (i.e., old wives’ tale) that cats suck out babies’ breath. Another one is that cats like to lie on babies’ faces and suffocate them. While it “is theoretically possible for a cat to inadvertently suffocate a baby . . . there are no reliable reports of that ever occurring, and it’s easy enough to block kitty’s access to the crib.” There are reliable reports of parents inadvertently killing a baby by sharing a bed with him. Parental co-sleeping looks like more of a safety risk to babies than cats are.

The newer scare tactics, like the allergy thing, have a more modern veneer of science on them than cats sucking breath, but in most cases it’s a thin one.

My neighbor’s poor cat was tossed out of her home for nothing. According to the latest science, people are less likely to develop allergies to cats or dogs if they grow up with them. Evidence shows that exposure to potential allergens lowers the chance of developing an allergy. That applies even to babies – in fact, the first year of life is the best time for exposure. It also applies before birth: pregnant women who spend time with cats or dogs can pass their resistance to those allergies on to their babies.

The one warning to pregnant women that is well-founded: don’t scoop litter. Toxoplasmosis, a parasite that can be found in feline excrement, is dangerous to fetuses. So keep the cat and get someone else to do the clean up. Expectant moms get a pass on that chore. If anything, that would appear to be a reason to keep the cat.

It’s easy to avoid contracting toxoplasmosis from cats. The true risk factors are “handling undercooked meat and drinking unsanitary water.” Rather than throwing out the cat, women are better off switching to a vegan diet and checking out how clean their local water supply is.

So pets aren’t going to make your child sick. They actually could make her healthier. According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics,

babies who are in close contact with dogs or cats during their first twelve months of life were found to enjoy better health and were less likely to suffer from respiratory infections, compared to those without any pets in the house or no close contact with these animals.

Kicking out your pet isn’t just unnecessary. It also deprives your kid of some good medicine.

Choosing Between Children and Pets?

To be clear, I don’t advocate putting a child at serious medical risk in order to keep a companion animal, but the risk has to be real before you kick a pet out. When you adopt, take in, or buy an animal, you’re not renting her or letting her hang around until you don’t feel like it anymore. You are taking responsibility for her well-being. Sometimes that entails a little inconvenience to you. When a doctor tells you to abandon the animal, you don’t just do it. You research the issue, seek a second opinion, and do whatever else it takes to become fully informed. Taking a step as drastic as tossing out an animal without bothering to get all the facts isn’t just lazy and irresponsible; it is cruel. And if worse came to worst and you found you truly couldn’t keep your pet, your responsibility doesn’t end. You would need to find a good home – a very good home – not dump her at a shelter.

If you got that cat or dog as an experiment to see what it would be like to have a baby – well, that is a whole other mess. Suffice it to say that the experiment is a big failure if it ends with you throwing the faux child out of your house. Maybe it’s time to rethink whether you really have what it takes to be a parent. Like children, the duty to companion animals is for life.






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(9) Readers Comments

  1. February 3, 2014 at 7:32 pm

    I fully agree, kids and pets go together like nutritional yeast and popcorn. Both are huge amounts of work, but so worth it. That said, I disagree with trying to scare would-be parents with not so founded statistics from an article linking co-sleeping (technically, bed-sharing) with danger. Co-sleeping has been around long before people came up with the idea to put their baby in a crib in another room in your house at night, and it's not inherently unsafe. The overwhelming majority of families do co-sleep at some point, which I think is great. I'm a firm believer in attachment parenting, and how/where we as a family spend our night times is a big part of that. (I'm also a long-time vegan, and highly respect your work!) Thanks for the article, but please reconsider equating co-sleeping with significant safety risks. For more info, see http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/health-concerns/sleep-problems/sleep-safety/latest-research-co-sleeping-safety

  2. February 3, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Sherri. I certainly wasn't "trying to scare" parents and I didn't equate co-sleeping with "significant safety risks." I wrote that there are reliable reports of accidental infant deaths from co-sleeping. I didn't say there are a lot of them -- but more than none means more than cats have caused. I don't oppose co-sleeping and didn't recommend against it in this piece. And now I'm going to get me some popcorn with nutritional yeast.

  3. Blueberries
    February 4, 2014 at 7:37 am

    When I was born my parents had two large dogs and two cats. I grew up with animals in my life from the very start and this instilled in me the love and respect for animals that later lead me to go vegan. Our animals were my friends and protectors and I think that was a valuable part of my childhood.

  4. February 4, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    I think this is a great post and I commend you for writing it (def a topic that needs to be addressed) but I think that the title of the article and some of the pieces are one-sided. I don't mean any disrespect but my feeling is that you have not been through the experience of having a baby and companion animals in the same household. Please forgive my assumption is I am wrong but I feel that you would have been a bit more compassionate towards expectant and new parents if you have been through this. People can tell you how hard it is but there is no substitution for going through it yourself. I was not prepared admittedly for the intensity. It is intense, especially in the first three months. Not everyone who gives away their companion animals post-baby does it for the reasons that you list. It is very hard to get a handle on the balance of having a newborn and companion animals in the same family. It's not just about allergies. There are valid and humane reasons why you may want to re-home your animals if a baby is on the way or has already arrived. Every situation is unique as is every family. I have degus (small rodents related to chinchillas). Pre pregnancy I had no trouble caring for them. They have have always been my babies too but after my human baby arrived, I could not offer them the attention that they needed. It was a rough time and I did consider whether they may be better off with someone else who could give them what they needed. Brutal honesty with myself was needed. I'm an animal rights advocate too..and here I was struggling with this decision. My little guys were stressed and sad that Mom wasn't giving them the attention that they needed. I was filled with guilt as I struggled with a nursing issue and had a needy baby and my little guys went longer than they should between cages cleanings and didn't get enough out of cage time. I was also going through a messy divorce. Then one of my little guys got a life threatening infection and I had to give myself a tough and brutal reality check whether I had the resources to care for these animals. Ultimately I reached out to my support team and was fortunate enough to have friends who were willing to clean cages and let my little guys out to play as often as they needed. We're all still together as a family, the furred and the not-so-furry, but out of concern for my "babies" I did consider either temporarily or permanently rehoming them. It wasn't out of replacing one baby for another but more making sure that everyone had the love and care that they needed to thrive and at least until I got things together enough to manage it all. It was a very tough situation. I'm grateful that I was able to reach out for help and that the request was readily fulfilled. So my point is, each situation is unique and sometimes, temporarily or permanently rehoming your fur babies (I'm not talking shelter dropoffs) can be responsible and kind if you feel that you are not able to care for them in a manner that they deserve to be cared for. Especially if you do not have a local support network to help out. I'm glad that I was resourceful and supported enough to not have to take this route but it definitely was a consideration. I don't know what I would have done if I was newer to town and didn't have the friends on the ground here to help out. I don't feel bad that I was considering this. After all, admitting to myself that my animals' well-being is a higher priority than my pride and my feelings is nothing to be ashamed of. When I signed their adoption papers, I promised to give them the care that they deserve. I made a promise that I was required in my heart to honor. I'm not the only one I know who has been in this situation. One thing that no one mentions, what about talking about a plan that focuses on how to help the animals and parents during the transition until the parents have a better handle on now balancing life with an intensely needy little person? Instead of shaming people into keep their companion animals, let's help them (I personally felt shaming in this piece whether that was your intent or not..I'd like to think not but either way it's not helpful). Instead of such a black and white piece, I'd rather see something supportive like "pregnant or a new parent with companion animals? Here's how to keep everyone happy and healthy and together." Despite my disagreement with some pieces of this post, I think this is an excellent spotlight on something that needs to be addressed and thank you for writing it.

  5. February 4, 2014 at 11:33 pm

    I couldn't agree more! I am a cat vet and I have had to calm down upset expectant parents who have been told to get rid of their cats a number of times. Largely due to the toxoplasmosis risk. It is pretty shocking how uninformed many doctors seem to be about toxoplasmosis, and it is always a little awkward for me to have to contradict them. The actual risk of contracting it for your cat is so small compared to the greater risk of under cooked meat, dirty water and poorly washed vegetables. Firstly, cats who do shed toxo only do so for an incredible short period of time. Secondly, it takes 24h for the poop to become infectious. So expectant mums, enjoy several months of getting someone else to clean out the litter tray (or wear gloves, clean it out as soon as you see the poop, and wash your hands very well if you have no one to help you), and enjoy a long and beautiful life with your kitty baby and your soon to be human baby!

    • February 8, 2014 at 1:01 pm

      Susan, please keep on contradicting those ignorant doctors. Good for you for saving even more lives than you already do as a veterinarian.

  6. Jennifer Hendricks
    March 20, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    Amanda, I think you and Piper are talking about different kinds of circumstances. There are certainly situations--baby-related and otherwise--in which a person might have to give up a pet animal. But Piper's post seems more concerned about doctors _routinely_ telling anyone expecting a baby to get rid of their pet. That's bad advice.



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