Keys to owning pets while living in Beijing
Man’s best friend comes in many shapes and sizes. For some, the beloved companion is a dog, but for others it could be a cat or a hamster, perhaps even a lizard or pig. For Beijingers, the family pet might be a clicking cricket in a woven basket trilling on the back of a rusty bicycle. Whether you’ve brought your pet with you or adopted one here in China, you know that welcoming animals into the home brings joy to the entire family – as well as a set of common sense precautions and responsibilities.
When it comes to having pets around babies, the issue turns delicate, in particular when cats are involved. Contrary to urban legend, cats do not “suck a baby’s breath,” as has been alleged in the rare occurrences of cats suffocating babies. There is no scientific evidence that a cat would deliberately harm a baby, and most experts agree that cats and babies can happily coexist so long as normal pet safety measures are in place. For instance, a cat and baby should never be left alone together, and cats should be discouraged from sleeping in the same bed as a baby. In fact, parents who own cats may want to consider putting netting over the baby’s crib.
The only real health issue concerning cats is toxoplasmosis, a parasite found in cat feces, which mainly affects unborn children, babies and people with compromised immune systems. Cats can be tested for toxoplasma antibodies at veterinary clinics, however, so given regular hygiene precautions, pregnant women and babies can live in harmony with a cat. Hand-washing, as always, is important; playing in soil and sand outdoors, where feces can be found, should be avoided.
There are, however, certain risks involved in exposing animals to children, in particular to babies and pregnant women. Dr. DyAnn Chao, a pediatrician at Beijing International SOS Clinic, claims that any time is okay to introduce pets to children, so long as regular hygiene precautions are taken. This is especially important when it comes to reptiles. “Children should be old enough to understand the importance of washing their hands after handling these animals,” she says. “The US Centers for Disease Control recommend that reptiles not be kept in the homes of children under the age of 5,” she adds, explaining that salmonella, a disease particularly prevalent in turtles and other reptiles, has been known to transfer to children.
“Salmonella is not an issue if cages are kept clean and any droppings are removed daily,” says Scott Lupien, who has kept reptiles since he was a child. His 7-year-old son Clayton adores the family’s pet python Ocho, which they bought at Chegongzhuang Market three months ago. “Kids should wash their hands with soap after handling reptiles,” Scott says. “By following these simple precautions, there really is no worry of infection.”
According to a 2000 study by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, having a pet can be very beneficial to a child’s health and emotional development. Enhanced social skills, increased empathy, even greater confidence and an increased sense of self-worth are some of the upsides to pet ownership. “It encourages a child to play and exercise and gives them a sense of responsibility,” says Dr. Raymond Xu, chief pediatrician and medical director of Bayley and Jackson Medical Center in Beijing. “It can also provide physical stimulus to help develop senses of touch, sound and vision.” Dr. Xu also points out that pets can be particularly important for children with special needs or delays in development. “Children with autism can respond especially well to pets in terms of their language skills and possibly in developing emotional relationships,” he says.
Cyndi Campbell has lived in Beijing for 15 years and her 11-year-old daughter Marcia takes care of three hamsters. “Having them in her life has taught my daughter about responsibility, caring, loving and dying,” says Cindy. “Marcia has been totally responsible for their cleaning and care, and I watch her worry over them like a mother would her child.”
Anne Wilbur, a Beijing resident of nine years, has two cats, one of them brought from her home in San Anselmo, California, and the other given to her by a friend here in China. “My kids don’t clean the litter box, and when I was pregnant, I also avoided it,” she says. “Otherwise, I have never had concerns for my children’s health by owning cats. I want my girls to be comfortable around animals, and they have realized it takes care and compassion to have a pet.”
When introducing a new baby to a dog, certain guidelines can help to ensure a safe relationship between dog and baby. For instance, when a baby first comes home, never allow a dog to smell or lick the baby; rather, it should be trained to stay away from the baby at all times. This teaches the dog that the baby belongs to the family pack and, despite its small size, has higher ranking than the dog. Parents, as the pack leaders, must enforce this ranking, which can be done by leaving items carrying the baby’s smell around the house, including diapers. A dog should keep away from these items and be corrected if he doesn’t do so. This reinforces the baby’s importance.
For older kids, the benefits of owning a dog are well-documented. A dog provides physical activity and contact, emotional comfort, loyalty and affection. They provide a connection to nature and teach kids respect for living things, not to mention lessons in handling illness and loss. Dogs can even become a sort of confidante to older kids, as children often talk to their pets. Freny Munshi believes her 14-year-old son Danesh benefits enormously from his pet pug Wally. “The day Wally came into our house, our lives changed for the better,” she says. “My son has learned about nurturing and unconditional love. He has a true companion in Wally, who is always there for him whenever he feels lonely or upset.”
One of the main issues facing pets and older children in Beijing is rabies, and pre-vaccinating children for this invariably fatal disease is advised, even if they are not exposed to animals or own a pet. “A child could contract rabies from a dog bite or a cat scratch, so it’s recommended all children are vaccinated, says Dr. Xu from Bayley and Jackson. “Also, ensure [the pet]is vaccinated. If a child suffers a pet-related incident, you should seek medical help immediately for the relevant treatment.”
China offers free testing for rabies antibodies in cats and dogs, as well as in providing free rabies shots for pets. Owners must simply register their pet in their local district in order to qualify. All dogs within the Fourth Ring Road must be registered with their local pai chu suo, or police station, and each household is allowed one dog, measuring ideally under 35cm (from the shoulder to the ground). Initial registration costs RMB 1,000, with a possible 50 percent discount if the animal can be proven neutered by a registered animal hospital. An annual registration fee of RMB 500 applies for dogs, while cats are currently exempt from registration.
Spread of disease amongst pets is a serious problem in China, as fewer than 50 percent of dogs and as little as 10 percent of cats countrywide are vaccinated, according to the International Center for Veterinary Services (ICVS) in Beijing. Distemper and heartworm are two very serious conditions that can affect dogs in addition to kennel cough, parvovirus, ringworm, fleas and worms. For cats, problems include feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus.
“To ensure a healthy pet in Beijing, you must keep all vaccinations up to date and provide them a clean, safe environment,” says Dr. Tina Tian, a veterinarian at ICVS. Dr. Tian suggests having all pets examined thoroughly by a registered veterinarian in Beijing, no matter where they come from, as the needs and health issues for pets vary greatly. She also says it’s vital to provide pets with clean, filtered water and vet-recommended foods (making sure any meat is well cooked to avoid parasites). Also, keep dogs on a leash at all times when outdoors. “Keeping a pet indoors and on a leash ensures they don’t hunt for birds and rodents, which carry diseases including rabies,” explains Dr. Tian.
There’s no doubt that pets can enjoy a very good quality of life in Beijing when their owners follow proper health care measures and simple hygiene precautions. Whether it’s snake, hamster, fish or puppy, the companionship and life lessons that animals bring when they become members of the family are benefits that can outweigh the challenges.