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Ask Dr. Sears: Pets and Preemies

Q. I'm concerned about the effect our dog and two cats might have on our baby, who was recently born prematurely. Will the pets pose any sort of danger to my child's health when she comes home from the hospital?

A. Preemies need extra protection from pets because their immature lungs are more susceptible to environmental irritants as well as illness. The more premature your baby and the more lung problems she has while in the hospital, the more careful you must be once she comes home.

Most dogs are naturally curious about babies and adapt easily to the new family member. Of all pets, cats especially like to snuggle next to babies. Something to be aware of, however, is that cats can transmit allergens that irritate a baby's breathing passages. To protect your preemie's precious developing lungs, follow these precautions:

Separate baby from pets. During the first three months, keep your baby and pets apart as much as possible. Keep pets out of the nursery  -- or your bedroom if that is where your baby sleeps. If your cats are indoor cats, it's unnecessary and unrealistic to make them stay outdoors, but you must do your best to keep them from resting close to baby. It's normal for preemies to sleep a lot, and it will be tempting for your cats to jump into the bassinet to nestle next to her while she's snoozing.

Review your family history. If there is a family history of dog or cat allergies, be extra vigilant about separating your pets and your preemie.

Use an air filter. If your cats are indeed primarily indoor pets, it will be nearly impossible to keep baby from being exposed to allergens. Consider getting a HEPA-type air filter, especially for the nursery. Air filters can reduce the level of allergens and environmental irritants.

Separate baby and litter box. When your baby begins crawling and walking, take extra precautions to keep her away from the cats' litter box. Cat litter can be a breeding ground for a germ called toxoplasmosis, which can cause respiratory illness and also be harmful to pregnant women.

More preemie precautions (to protect her maturing lungs):

[BULLET {Have a strict "no-smoking" rule in your home. Any family member who currently smokes now has a very compelling reason to quit. Premature lungs are especially vulnerable to the damaging effects of cigarette smoke. Lining the breathing passages are millions of tiny hair-like filaments, called cilia, which collect irritants and move them up higher in the breathing passages where they can be coughed up. Cigarette smoke paralyzes cilia, making your preemie more prone to respiratory infections. In fact, infants of smoking parents have more than twice the number of doctors' visits for respiratory illnesses. Smoking outside the house is also unwise, since the allergens from the cigarette smoke can collect on your hair and still manage to irritate your baby.}]

[BULLET {Keep your baby's immunizations up-to-date, especially those related to respiratory illnesses. Babies who are very premature, less than 34 weeks, are usually given monthly injections of a medicine called Synagis, which protects them from the most common respiratory germ, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Check with your health care provider to see if your baby needs RSV protection.}]

[BULLET {Being the parent of a preemie is your license to be overprotective. Screen all visitors for coughs and colds, especially young children. Keep anyone who has symptoms away from your baby, and insist on thorough hand-washing before they hold her.}]

If your preemie has any sort of compromised lung function, you will need to continue the above pulmonary-protective measures at least throughout the first year or two. However, if she experiences no significant lung problems, you can gradually let your preemie and pets grow closer and, hopefully, become the best of friends.

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