I hated my dog while I was pregnant.
Acknowledging it now, nearly four years after my son was born, is as disturbing and upsetting as the mental and physical symptoms I experienced back then.
Actually, ‘hate’ isn’t quite accurate. Because I fell in love with Peggy from the moment I found her, sat forlornly by a busy road covered in fleas and sores. Two weeks later I paid her bail to the dog warden and took her home.
And I was completely devastated when she died very suddenly two years ago. Which just makes my dark feelings towards her for a few difficult pregnant months all the more incomprehensible.
I wanted to know if this was common, so I ran a survey of 1,077 women who are either pregnant currently or have been in the last three years. I asked them about their feelings of intolerance, aversion or disgust towards various things.
Peggy and I were not alone – our survey shows that as many as 15% of pregnant pet owners experience an aversion to their own pets during pregnancy.
That’s over 61,000 pregnant women every year in the UK trying to cope with an aversion to their own pet.
The science behind pregnancy aversions
This isn’t the old cliche of ‘I’m having a baby, I have no time for the dog now’. I had two dogs during pregnancy (and cats and chickens), but it was only Peggy I couldn’t tolerate.
I functionally perform her daily care – but I could barely touch her or (on the worst days) be in the same room because of a strong revulsion of her smell, the texture of her fur… even the licking and gnawing sounds she made.
I could find no studies or research into why some women can’t tolerate their pets during pregnancy. Perhaps because of its relative scarcity. Or because it causes so much guilt that we just don’t admit to it.
But there have been numerous studies and theories about morning sickness and food aversions.
In Morning sickness: a mechanism for protecting mother and embryo Dr Samuel Flaxman and Dr Paul Sherman suggest that pregnancy nausea “shields both the mother and her developing embryo from food-borne pathogens and their associated toxins” and that food aversions were an extension of this.
Flaxman and Sherman note that aversions were most frequently reported to fish, poultry and eggs, possibly because of the dangers of fungus and bacteria when these ‘animal’ food sources are improperly prepared.
“It might be more appropriate to view [aversions] as a mechanistic complement to maternal and embryo protection,” they suggest.
We don’t eat our pets, but as animals they’re potentially a living vector for these various harmful organisms. Could it be 15% of us experience an aversion to our own pets because of the same survival mechanism?
That theory helps me make some sense of my own experiences, particularly when I didn’t feel the same revulsion towards my cats, chickens or even my other dog.
Peggy was a cheerful and charming little mongrel, but her time as a stray had taken its toll on her health. She was a regular at the vet. We always seemed to be battling a hotspot or an ear infection. Her deformed nails sometimes got infected. Her fur was coarse, sheddy and (dare I say it) a little bit whiffy.
Were my pregnant senses going haywire and telling the disgust sensors in my brain that poor Peggy was a health threat?
The mother-pet-baby dynamic
Dr Diana Fleischman is an evolutionary psychologist who has published a number of articles about female hormone and their correlation with feelings of disgust.
Fleischman was 38 weeks pregnant when we asked her about this link. “I have seen many women on my pregnancy forums complaining about their cats and dogs, she told us, but “neither my luteal phase work nor the work on women's disgust sensitivity has replicated that consistently so I don't think it's a given that women are necessarily more disgust sensitive in periods of high progesterone."
Fleischman suggested there could be a psychological reason for why some of us feel so intolerant to our pets during pregnancy. She referred to research by Josh Tybur about why we are more disgust-sensitive in our relationships with strangers than with our own family.
“Where there is a lot to gain from the interaction it makes sense to reduce disgust sensitivity,” says Fleischman. “This is the kind of trade-off that might also change with pets when women are pregnant. If pets act like child substitutes, the arrival or incipient arrival of a child will change that cost/benefit calculation.”
Pet pregnancy aversion isn’t the same for everyone
I invited the women who responded to my survey to tell me what pet aversion felt like to them and some had startlingly similar experiences to my own.
"It was bizarre. I had no problem with the cats or ferrets, but even the way the dog breathed annoyed me,” said one woman. “It only happened with my second daughter, not my first."
I could also relate to respondents who found the sounds their pets made unbearable: “"Even the noises the cat would make when cleaning itself completely irritated me to the point I’d cover my ears or had to leave the room,"said one. "I just found him really annoying – he barked more, walked badly, I just struggled with my emotions,” admitted another.
These testimonials show how some of us have a very visceral and multi-sensory experience of pet aversion. At its worst I found the feel of my dog’s fur made me recoil. If she licked my hand the revulsion was so strong I’d run to the sink and scrub it.
Many of the women said they felt guilty about their feelings and response to their pets during pregnancy.
"I don’t think it was my pet particularly but my mood swings and added hormones,” said one woman. “We have a very loving and cuddly Labrador so throw in hormones, tiredness and feeling extremely uncomfortable it wasn’t a great mix. I felt such guilt and cried a lot about it when I snapped at her or couldn’t cuddle."
Here’s a word cloud showing the women’s most common shared responses:
Dozens of responses pointed to the smell of their pet’s food, faeces or even the pet itself triggering the aversion.
"My feelings didn’t change, I just couldn’t control the smells as it makes me sick,” said one.
"They disgusted me especially the food they ate and the smell that came off them and the food,” another complained.
Nurse Jenny Lord worked as a midwife for 14 years and writes the blog Midwife&Life.
“Firstly let me reassure you you are not alone,” she says. “Pet aversion in pregnancy is a common problem. Most commonly it's the smell of the pets, especially in the first trimester. From the smell of the dog, cat, hamster, or even fish water, that heightened sense of smell you get in early pregnancy can really put a dampener on your relationship with your once beloved pet.”
How women cope with pet aversion in pregnancy
I asked the women I surveyed how they coped with their pet aversions. Here's what they said:
The most popular strategy was to have a partner, family or friends look after the pet while you’re not up to it, with 44% doing this.
Jenny says there are some practical steps you can take to help you cope – but first look after your own health and your baby’s.
There are some very legitimate health concerns around pet care and pregnancy. The contents of your cats litter tray are a potential toxoplasmosis risk, while improperly stored raw food could harbour dangerous bugs like e-coli or salmonella.
These are also dangerous for babies and young children, so take steps to prepare your home now so it's pet-safe by the time baby arrives.
And if you’re the partner of a pregnant person, now’s your time to shine: you need to be first in line for feeding, grooming and poo-scooping duties for the next few months.
More than one-in-five of the women surveyed overcompensated for their negative feelings towards their pet by spoiling them with extra treats, toys or walks. So the love doesn’t go during pregnancy – it’s just tough having to keep your distance.
Sadly, 4% actually re-homed or gave up their pet, while another 15% considered it but didn’t go through with it.
With a possible 61,000 women experiencing a pregnancy-related pet aversion each year, that could amount to over 2,400 pets given up.
Claire Stallard is a pet behaviour expert with pet charity Blue Cross. "It must be incredibly distressing to suddenly not want to be anywhere near a much loved pet during pregnancy, particularly if the relationship is a close one,” she says.
“Blue Cross would encourage pregnant owners affected by this to talk to their midwife, doctor, family or friends about how they are feeling and discuss what support they may be able to receive.
“We feel that it’s important to raise awareness of this unusual phenomenon as the more it is talked about and understood, the more women will feel encouraged to talk about how they feel.”
In our survey, just 9% sought counselling, medical advice or help from their midwife for the problem. I'd like that statistic to be a lot higher.
“If pet aversion becomes more serious and you are thinking of rehoming your pet or it is really bothering you then do talk to your midwife and they may be able to help,” says Nurse Jenny.
I hope this article might encourage more women to seek the help they need to cope – whether from friends, family or a medical professional.
Pregnancy pet care and self-care tips
Midwife&Life’s Nurse Jenny Lord has given us her expert tips for coping with pets in pregnancy:
- Make a list of positives of your pet and try to remember all the good memories you have together.
- It's really only the cat litter and cat poop you need to avoid for medical reasons, the rest is OK. But if possible, get someone else to do the day-to-day pet chores and keep the animal clean, fed, walked, and groomed for you so that your interactions are the more positive ones.
- Once you’re past the first trimester, your sense of smell and aversion may lift a little. Your baby is now fully formed and just needs to grow.
- You may be worried about your pet somehow injuring you and the growing baby – try to think rationally about your pet and how they normally are and remember even if your dog or cat jumps on you or your tummy, the baby is very well cushioned not only under your skin, fat and muscle layers but then also by your womb which is a huge strong muscle, plus the amniotic fluid. So it usually takes quite a lot to do any damage.
- Get your pet used to the idea of change. If you have a dog, do some training together around introducing a new baby and that will help you both adjust.
- If you're still struggling, remember it is very unlikely that you will permanently feel this way, and after the birth you will start your relationship back up again.
- If you feel like your feelings are getting out of control or are combined with obsessive behaviours like excessive cleaning, hand-washing, or intrusive thoughts, then get some help via your Midwife or GP and they can get you referred for some counselling.
And a few tips from us:
- Get your pet checked over by a vet. They might find an underlying issue with their skin, fur, mouth or nails that's making them a bit smellier than usual and you'll both be much happier when it's sorted out. If you have a pet insurance policy with us you can video call a vet for free at any time of the day or night. Perfect for when pregnancy – or a newborn – is making it a bit trickier to get to the vet in person.
- We also give you discounts on flea, tick and worm treatment subscription boxes delivered to your door. Pregnant or not, nothing makes our skin crawl like creepy crawlies, so knowing your cat or dog's parasite free might ease your worries.
- If you're feeling overwhelmed or smothered by your pet, your relationship might benefit from a bit of a breather. Your pet insurance policy includes a year's free membership to TrustedHousesitters so you can enjoy a babymoon without worrying about your pets. Or perhaps you could re-bond with a pet-friendly spa break – search for a luxury getaway on PetsPyjamas. It'll be your last chance for a grown-up vacation before you have to start booking pet-friendly family holidays instead...