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Many first-time parents have had a taste of parenthood before giving birth.

That’s because more than 70 million households in the United States own a pet of some kind, according to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation website, and one of the most difficult tasks facing many new parents is incorporating their pets into a new family dynamic.

Dr. Michelle Mayers, a veterinarian with Hillcrest Animal Hospital in Simpsonville, offers a free program through Bon Secours St. Francis Health System that teaches parents to introduce newborn infants to their pets.

The next session will be held at 6 p.m. May 5 at St. Francis Eastside, 125 Commonwealth Drive, Greenville. Registration is required by visiting www.stfrancisbaby.org or calling 864-675-4400.

“There really is a huge need for this type of education,” Mayers said, pointing out that her classes typically have between 15 to 30 couples show up eager for advice on the topic. “A lot of parents get nervous about introducing their infant to a dog. Maybe they have dogs who jump or bite, so they’re nervous. Most of these first-time parents, their pet was their first child. Now they’re getting away from their pet, which is mentally and emotionally very hard for them. They have this connection with this animal, and now they have a connection with their human child, and they’re conflicted about it.”

Mayers, who has a young daughter, understands that conflict first-hand.

She said pets, which many people treat like children before they give birth, can experience neglect and separation anxiety when a newborn enters the equation. Some parents worry their pets will act aggressively toward the newest member of the household, but there are ways to ease those concerns without loosing the four-legged member of your family.

“Too many animals end up in shelters for that reason, and it’s something that can be avoided,” she said.

Mayers said a lot of pets are given up because new parents don’t give them a chance to adjust to the changes.

“Unfortunately, no matter how much you love your pet, the amount of time you’ll have to spend with them will be less after you give birth,” she said. “Animals are creatures of habit. You don’t want to change things abruptly on them. That’s when you start to get behavioral problems — when you make automatic changes like that.”

Rather, she advises pet owners to slowly begin pulling back on the time they spend with their pets before the baby is born.

“If you take your dog to the dog park every day, cut it down to twice a week,” she said. “If you’re in charge of feeding your pet, maybe daddy should be in charge of feeding. Whatever it is, change the routine slowly, and start before the baby arrives. It will be easier on everyone involved.”

Her program also discusses the diseases new parents should be concerned about by having a pet and a newborn in the same house.

“For the most part, you have to worry about parasites,” she said. “Simply make sure your pet is healthy before the baby comes. Schedule a check up with your veterinarian and go over those fears together.”

New parents also need to think about pet-care commitments and duties and plan who will regularly see to the pet’s feeding, walks and vet visits. She also discusses exotic pets, keeping pets safe with children in the home, and how to prevent behavioral problems before they start.

“There are tons of benefits of rearing a child with a pet,” she said. “The benefits far outweigh any negatives you might experience from having to adjust your routine.”

Mayers offers the Introducing Your Newborn Infant to Your Pets program four times a year. The remaining sessions for 2016 are scheduled for May 5, Aug. 4 and Nov. 3.

“Most pets do really well when you bring a newborn home,” she said. “Most first-time parents experience a lot of anxiety that can be overcome with some simple planning and adjustments. Really, it’s a win-win situation.”

Advantages of raising a child with a pet

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that children raised with pets have many advantages over those without. For example, positive relationships with their pets contribute to a child’s self esteem and self-confidence. Here are some more advantages:

■ Pets can help children develop nonverbal communication skills, compassion and empathy.

■ They provide lessons about life, reproduction, illness, accidents, and death.

■ They teach respect for other living things.

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