I’d immediately judged and promptly admonished them for giving up on what I view as a lifetime commitment. I could not, for the life of me, imagine why anyone would even dare to take on such a huge responsibility and then just like that, decide to let go of an animal whose companionship they’d enjoyed and to whom they are the world. I do say “almost” because I was responding from the only point of view I understood then: that of a pet owner, not a pet owner and a parent.
Now we are raising a two-year-old child alongside seven cats and three dogs― in a way, effectively giving us eleven toddlers in the family. Is it easy? No, definitely not. The truth is that if we didn’t have the kind of household we do, I wouldn’t know how all ten animals would receive the attention they deserve and are accustomed to with the addition of a human child to the roster. I understand those parents’ predicament better now, and believe that if I understood and knew more about parenting then, I could have convinced them that their decision to give up on their pets was unnecessary.
As a bit of a background, I grew up in a family that always had a wide variety of animals around–regular domesticated animals like cats, dogs, and birds, as well as farm animals like chickens, pigs, and cows. I never heard of any issues regarding how children and animals should or are expected to interact because there were no such issues in our family. The truth is that I’ve always been surprised, if not entirely appalled, by how differently most people treat their pets and animals from the way my family does.
On Pets and Pregnancy
When I found out I was pregnant, I received multiple comments that I needed to get rid of my pets and that I need to choose between my unborn child and my cats and dogs. I did not show it but to be honest, I was infuriated by the implication that these cats and dogs on whom I lavished so much love and attention were viewed as dispensable. Indignantly but politely as I could muster, I told friends and family that there is no need to choose and that both two- and four-legged children will be equal recipients of our love and attention.
A lot of the time the concerns about pets and pregnancy centered on cats. Even before I was pregnant with my own child I did research on this and learned about the existence of toxoplasmosis: a parasite-caused infection that thrives mainly in feces. Any domesticated animal can have it but since most folk living in the city would either have cats or dogs, cats became the commonly-accused party.
The information online have both scary and reassuring factors, but the one I did find to be of concern is that human doctors are usually ill-informed about it. Of course, they can’t be blamed completely for advising to just get rid of the pets to ensure safety. On the other hand, the greatest irony is that, if the parasite does exist in the cat, it’s because the owner is likely to be a neglectful one.
All domesticated animals, especially household pets, should receive regular immunization. An immunized cat will be able to fight off most common infections and illnesses. In the case of toxoplasmosis, keeping the cat and your household environment clean is the best way to ensure an immensely decreased probability of the parasite being anywhere nearby. Of equal interest is that if the cat owner in question has always had cats around, chances are they’ve already been exposed to the infection and have built up an immunity. In a pregnant woman, this translates to an immunity that is instantly given to the unborn child.
I was fortunate to be able to pass some animal care responsibility on to other members of our household, and since our cats and dogs are all trained to do their business in the garden, there is no litter box to clean. All I really had to do was give them as much attention and play time as I could with me. For people who do not have the same luxuries, the guidelines are simple:
1. Worried about toxoplasmosis? Never have the pregnant woman handle the cat litter. It’s tough to bend or sit down that low for an extended period anyway. Have someone else do the litter box cleaning.
2. My cats are used to bathing but if yours are not, dilute some cat shampoo in water. Use one wash cloth to quickly wipe down the cat’s body with the mixture and follow it up with a clean, damp cloth to remove the shampoo from the fur. For dogs, it’s even easier: have someone else do the dog bathing.
3. For dogs, do not handle the dog walking alone. I have heavy, medium-sized dogs. My husband handled both dogs and I just walked alongside them during our daily walks.
On Toddlers and Toddlers at Heart
By the time our son was born, I’d like to think we were as prepared as possible to become parents to seven cats, three dogs, and one human child. (I have since learned it’s a complete fantasy to think that one can ever be ready to become a parent.) That said, I admit I find it to be a matter of pride to receive comments on how fearless he is in dealing with cats and dogs. I always say in response that, “We have seven cats and three dogs all of whom we have taught him to regard as his older siblings.” I’m willing to bet, though, that those smiles of approval were also hiding the question thoughts on how that is even possible.
In our case, I firmly believe the very early exposure helped a lot. As cautious as we were about his interactions with the cats and dog, especially when he was a newborn, we never prevented our pets from coming near him and getting a whiff of his scent, or sneaking in a lick on his hand (which we promptly wiped clean, of course–we all know what cats and dogs do with their tongues). Nor did we stop Llew from approaching them.
If there’s anything I would emphasize, it’s for the owners to know their cats and dogs very, very, very, and one more time, very well. Sure we’ve all seen those Internet memes showing small children using cats and dogs (and sometimes other animals) as pillows, roughhousing with them, hugging them, kissing them, you name it. I always include a warning, whenever I post pictures of my son doing the same things, that not all animals will take kindly to this and most of the time, they will only accept such treatment from a child they recognise as family.Case in point, Llew and his cousin, Cloud. Cloud is rarely exposed to indoor pets and has no pets of his own. Llew, being raised the way he is, was playing with one of our cats–the crankiest one, Patches. Cloud saw this and immediately copied the way Llew was petting Patches. Wait, did I say “pet”? I meant, the way Llew made her head bob up and down like a ball.
When Llew was doing it, Patches stayed still, eyes closed, and allowed him to do as he pleased. When Cloud tried it…SMACK! Out flew a paw, hitting him squarely in the temple. Thankfully, our cats never bare their claws (unless they have reason to) and all Cloud walked away with was the humiliation of being hit by a cat a sixth his size.
There are many factors to this. These cases are among the few times you might catch me saying “Breed matters” because some cat and dog breeds do show a clear predisposition to being playful with or more tolerant of children. But I will also mention that beyond breed, how the animal is raised matters even more. I have to emphasise the latter because six of my seven cats are domestic shorthairs: your run-of-the-mill cat that can be found on pretty much any corner. Combined with the aforementioned personality of the animal in question, an owner should be able to gauge if they should be allowing children near their pet or not.
It could also have helped that we prepared our cats and dogs for the arrival of their human sibling. Beginning the confirmation of my pregnancy, we did not stop talking to them about how they will have another sibling soon and that he will need a great deal of attention from all of us for a while. I don’t think it’s at all crazy to believe that they understood what we said. All the dogs were waiting in the garage to welcome us back, and the cats each took at least one peek into our bedroom that first night to check out the noisy new addition.Baths and annual immunizations are a must–for both child and animal, but especially for the animal since you are never really sure where they’ve been and what they’ve been in contact with. We allow our cats the freedom to go outside as they please (we later learned that though we always thought they roam up to several blocks away from our house, they are actually just hiding somewhere out of sight) and our dogs pretty much own the garden. We are somewhat assured of the cleanliness of their stomping grounds but this does not mean we never worry that they could be bringing in things that can trigger our allergies.
This is particularly important for our cats, three of whom are in constant contact with Llew. Our most senior cat, Ming-chi, is Llew’s favorite and she stays in his playroom. He is always trying to engage her in hugs and cuddles which she tries to endure as long as she can before declaring she has had enough of being pounced by a creature over thrice her weight. The other two, Yuki and Kuro, have been Llew’s “nanny cats” since he was born.Llew is one of those children who abhor swaddling and kicks off his blankets.
Because I breastfeed, we chose to have Llew sleep with us on the bed. We did not stop Kuro and Yuki, accustomed to being our bedmates as well, from joining us and ultimately, they were the ones who prevented him from getting too cold at night by curling up by his feet after he’d kicked off the blanket I put on him before I fell asleep myself.It is because of this coexistence that Llew was taught, as soon as he became independently mobile, he must always use only his hands to gently stroke and pet the cats and dogs.
Everyone in our house knows to constantly instruct and remind him, “Gentle touch.” Muscle control notwithstanding, he does try, and it seems our cats and dogs understand this and whenever he gets too rough, they either take it in stride or leave the room. As mentioned above, our cats and dogs do recognise him as part of their family and they have consistently exercised immense patience with him. It has happened that his hands or feet have gotten scratched, I will own up to that. Was I worried? Honestly, no. Our cats are all healthy, they mainly stay indoors so they’re clean, and it taught Llew to be more careful with them. That statement won’t win me any “Parent of the Year” awards with many folk but both my husband and I do agree that as long as it doesn’t put our child in a life-threatening situation, letting him explore and experience these things in a controlled environment is better than spoon feeding him what is and isn’t safe to do.
My final note for this particular train of thought is a reminder to parents that, if your cat or dog was with you before your child arrived, reassure them that they are not loved any less. In our case, our cats and dogs were able to stand being given significantly less attention than they were accustomed to for a year before it started driving them crazy. Let’s be honest: an older human sibling would likely act up too when a younger child comes along. We have always treated our cats and dogs like family and almost like they were actual children. We are currently working on this and reassuring them of their place in our affections. It’s a massive balancing act but it’s not an impossible task. Besides, Llew is old enough to let them know that he loves them as much as we do, too.
This appeared in Animal Scene’s February 2016 issue.