When I was 26 weeks pregnant, our cat Madeline choked on a piece of kibble. One minute she was eating at her bowl and the next she was on the ground, unmoving. Just two weeks earlier we had taken CPR classes to await for the arrival of our baby. We snapped into action, my rounded belly grazing the floor as I puffed air into her mouth and Dan watched for the rising and falling of her chest. It became the one surprising benefit of having pets that I never could have expected. The situation was one of our greatest fears as soon-to-be parents, and our cat had been the one to snap our parental instincts into action.
"You build confidence as a pet owner that also helps you as a parent," Patricia O'Laughlin, a LA-based marriage and family therapist, tells Romper in an email interview. "No matter how challenging owning your pet is, you get into a groove with it. You eventually learn the rhythm and schedule and learn you can handle the responsibility. While being a parent is different, having a pet helps you learn how to handle their needs and can make you more confident that you can do it again."
Sara Nick of Sidewalk Dog Media, a dog-friendly resource based in Minneapolis, tells Romper she agrees. Nick says she is mom to a 4-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old dog and "can't think of better training for parenthood than pet ownership.
"Having cared for a dog or puppy definitely makes you less squeamish when it comes to the messes involved with babies, from spit-up to blowouts," she says. "By the time the baby comes along, you already have an arsenal of cleaning supplies and know how to use 'em."
Plus, Nick jokes, when it comes to crumbs and spills that come hand-in-hand with children, pets, especially dogs, provide a four-legged cleaning services free of charge. "I don't know how parents without pets keep their floors clean," she says.
Another benefit? Nick says she's quite fond of the bond her daughter has established with their dog, which is something I can totally relate to when it comes to our four — yes, four — adopted cats and our daughter Claire. And, oddly enough, it's Madeline who is always by her side. Our once-loner cat who was kind of, well, b*tchy, has become Claire's sister from another mother. I delight when I hear Claire beckon for “Tine Time,” her interpretation of our nickname, Tiny, for Madeline and our fluffy orange cat comes running.
"As my kids get older, I love that they are seeing and anticipating the needs of our dog, like when he’s hungry, thirsty, needs to go outside, or needs some attention and playtime," Heidi McBain, a Texas-based licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Romper in an email interview. "In this day and age where technology seems to play such a big part in our everyday lives, it’s nice to have the kids present and involved in the care of our family pet. The kids also feel helpful and important because they are helping to care for another living being."
"Overall, an estimated four in 10 children begin life in a family with domestic animals, and as many as 90 percent of all kids live with a pet at some point during their childhood," Gail F. Melson, PhD, professor emeritus of developmental studies at Purdue University in Indiana, told Parents.
Also true of pets? Like children, pets can prove to be challenging, O'Laughlin says. "Sometimes a pet barks a lot and scares others," she says. "This can also make a pet owner anxious and impact their self esteem. The same thing is true of a child when they have a tantrum in a public place. Coping with these challenges can help a parent when they experience similar lack of control or embarrassments."
It's a lesson that we certainly learned that night as we sat in an animal hospital and felt totally helpless as we watched Madeline receive treatment from medical professionals. I never could have expected that our first lesson in being Claire’s parents would come from our cat. Luckily, Madeline emerged from the hospital and lived to create the friendship she has today with Claire. Turns out that, like parenting our tiny human, raising a furry family member can come with its share of surprises — and lessons — too.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.