Let me start by admitting this up front: I have not always been a cat person.
I come from a long line of dog people -- dog people who believe that dogs are pets and not necessarily members of the family in equal standing to, say, a newborn.
But I inherited two cats when I got married, one of them a lovable, cross-eyed blue point Siamese my husband had taken in when his grandmother died. Mao -- so named because Grandma thought Siamese meant Chinese -- was affectionate, smart, very much like a dog and, therefore, awesome. He could catch moths with one paw.
I grew to love them both, but when we were expecting our first child my protective instincts kicked in.
Hence the screen door on our son’s nursery.
Our cats had springs for legs, and the idea of them jumping into the crib with our precious baby kept me awake at night. I was worried about all the old wives’ tales: They would cuddle up with him and suffocate him. They’d barf hairballs on his cute lamb bedding. (This was a distinct possibility, as our other Siamese had a nervous stomach and left me disgusting surprises almost every day.) Plus the whole cat-hair thing.
I didn’t want to keep the nursery door closed all the time, and I knew they could jump over a safety gate. So we came up with a screen door. The handyman gave me that puzzled, “whatever you want, ma’am” look when I told him what I had in mind, but he installed it anyway.
And it worked -- other than inspiring the younger Siamese to stand outside the door and howl indignantly.
Eventually I relaxed enough to leave the door open, and everyone got along just fine no smothering, no puking (in the nursery at least), not too much cat hair.
But, as it turns out, I wasn’t crazy. My animal experts tell me a screen door is, in fact, an ingenious idea.
“That’s perfect,” says Kitty (yes, that’s really her name) Yanko, education coordinator with the Peoria Humane Society, who has recommended the same thing to other parents with success. It protects the baby without shutting the animal out completely, and allows parents to hear the baby far preferable, she says, to locking your pet in the basement. (Who, me?)
Safety is always the first concern, but you want to facilitate the bond between your pet and baby by teaching the animal to be a part of the new family group, adds Susan Helmink, president of the Companion Animal Resource and Education Center in Urbana.
Yanko will share other tips on “Pets, Babies and Toddlers” at a workshop Monday evening at the University of Illinois Small Animal Clinic, part of a “Pet U” series started last year and co-sponsored by Helmink’s agency.
What’s Yanko’s most important advice?
“It sounds like a cliche, but supervision, supervision, supervision,” she says. “You just can’t say that enough.”
So many parents are caught up in the stress of caring for a new baby (stress? what stress?) that they forget to be watchful. They step around the corner to grab a diaper or run downstairs to change the laundry and feel it’s safe to leave the baby with a pet for a few seconds. But that’s all it takes for something to happen, Yanko says.
Both women cite statistics showing that of the 800,000 Americans who seek medical attention for dog bites each year, half are children. And more than three-fourths of those children are bitten by dogs they know.
Overall, experts say, preparation should start long before you bring baby home.
First, choose a pet with a good temperament. It’s the most crucial factor in a healthy child-pet relationship, far more important than size, appearance or specific breed, Yanko says.
“You could have a 150-pound laid-back, easy-going hairy dog, or a 10-pound chihuahua that’s jumping up and down and barking and scratching and you can’t hold it still. What would we rather have?” Yanko says.
When her oldest daughter was born, Yanko was very relaxed about her pets, and “there was very little to handle.” But they had easy dispositions. She’s seen families who have had to relinquish ill-tempered pets or even put them down.
Another key: Keep the routine as normal as possible for your pet. The last thing you want to do is send a message that this new baby is something to be feared or a threat, Yanko says.
You should start preparing your pet several months in advance. Basic obedience training is a must, but you can also buy CDs with the sounds of a baby crying. Have friends bring their babies or “appropriately acting toddlers” over to familiarize your pet with children. Set up the crib and car seat ahead of time so the animal can check them out. Bring home a receiving blanket from the hospital the day before baby comes home.
And as your children grow, don’t forget to train them. Infants don’t move around a lot, but toddlers can be, well, terrible. They need to understand from the get-go that there’s no give-and-take with rules about the pets, for their own safety, Yanko says.
Parents should teach children to use “soft hands” with a pet, approach them slowly and quietly and respect their space -- especially if the animal is eating, sleeping or playing with a toy.
“It’s a great opportunity to teach kids empathy and respect for a pet’s feelings,” she says.
Generally, most first-time parents’ fears tend to subside with time, Yanko says.
“That’s the thing we want to stress with parents: stay calm.”
Tips from our experts:
“Pet U” workshop
Monday’s “Pet U” workshop, “Pets, Babies and Toddlers,” runs from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the UI Small Animal Clinic, 1008 W. Hazelwood Drive, U.
Registration will be taken up until the day of the class. (Classes open to humans only.)
For information, call 333-2907 or visit the website.
Leave your own pet-baby stories below, or contact Julie Wurth at 351-5226, jwurthnews-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.
Photos: Biscuit, a 1-year-old Lab mix, cuddles with 6-month-old Ian Meyer, top. The Meyer family adopted Biscuit from the PAWS animal shelter in Peoria. At bottom, Kitty Yanko holds her cat, Mable, an 11-year-old calico-tabby mix adopted from PAWS. Photos courtesy Kitty Yanko