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:
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.