For many, bringing home a new baby constitutes one of life’s most significant and memorable events, in terms of the deep joy and excitement it brings and also the stress and worry it often manifests. Amid all of the new routines and responsibilities, the worrying about the baby’s well-being, and the sleepless nights, many new parents find themselves quite exhausted for those first few months. For those who also worry about how their pet dog or cat will respond to the new arrival, the stress can be overwhelming.
Luckily, most dogs and cats happily accept a new baby into the fold and introductions are easy and seamless. The pet might spend a bit of time sniffing the newcomer, curiously examining the toes wiggling around in the swaddling blanket or maybe sneaking in a lick across that downy soft bald head. For dogs and cats that have been around babies and children before, or who have easy-going, relaxed, and resilient behavioral styles of interacting with the world, this tiny bundled-up human may barely merit more interest than that first exploratory sniff. For others, however, the new addition may represent more of a challenge.
Over the past two decades, I have worked with many families whose primary concern was the introduction of their new baby to their pet(s). In some cases, I am brought in during the pregnancy to help the family prepare the home and the pet before the due date arrives. In other cases, I am called in soon after the baby has come home, typically because the family has observed their pet behave around or toward the baby in a way that has made them nervous or uncomfortable. In this month’s column, I will review strategies for preparing your dog or cat for the arrival of a baby beforehand. Next month, I will discuss how to respond if undesirable behavior is observed once the baby comes home.
Many young couples adopt or purchase a dog or cat during the early years of their relationship. For some, the dog or cat is the unintentional “practice round” before children. The pet serves as a bonding force, bringing couples together in their shared love of animals and their desire to be caretakers, while allowing some of the freedoms in schedule and lifestyle that young adults value. In some cases, that pet meets all of a couple’s needs for companionship and caretaking for a lifetime. For others, joint pet ownership is followed by the jump into parenting. What this can mean for many dogs and cats is that they have lived half their lives or more with their devoted - and childless - people. They may not have been around babies or children up to this point, as their people had socialized with other “pre-parent” folks. Perhaps they saw children at family reunions or at the park, but many pets in these circumstances have had limited exposure to babies or children in the home when their caretakes reach the point where they are ready to become parents themselves.
As I often tell worried parents, however, there is usually little to fear in bringing baby home. Even for dogs and cats not exposed to babies before, the infant who comes home at 2 days of age is minimally threatening or distressing to our animals. He or she comes home in a car seat or in arms, bundled in blankets and with no mobility other than some waving arms and legs. An infant in this way is typically much less of an immediate concern to dogs and cats than would be a toddler, preschooler, or elementary school aged child. The fast movements, strange noises, and unpredictable behavior of older children can lead to tension, fear, or even aggression in some animals while the relatively sedate newborn is much easier to adjust to. Nonetheless, it’s important to prepare the pet for baby’s arrival with some relatively easy accommodations and training exercises in advance.
First, be sure that you have unpacked and set up baby furniture and other items in advance. If your pet is allowed to explore with its nose all of the new baby-related items in advance, then there will be less interest in these items when baby comes home. If your dog or cat is a chewer of toys, or has a hard time knowing what belongs to him or her, you might keep the baby toys that look just like dog or cat toys out of your pet’s reach and behind a baby gate to the nursery, for example. I also encourage parents to role play some of the activities they will engage in at high rates when the baby comes, and to practice these before their due date so as to teach their pet that these activities are a cue for the pet to find something else to do. For example, if the parents plan to feed the baby in a rocker, I would have them sit in the rocker and read a book or rest while rocking a bit. They should provide their dog or cat with a favorite toy or activity feeder in advance if their pet is high energy or clingy. If their pet seeks their attention by trying to jump on their lap, bark at them, or nudge their arm, for example, they should say “No” in a neutral voice or turn away so that their pet can learn that “rocking chair time” is not a time for them to seek and receive lots of attention from their owner. With two parents on the scene, one parent could teach the pet that this is a time instead for a walk or toy play while the other parent feeds the baby. It can be difficult for our pets if they have always snuggled in the rocker with us, for example, and now we suddenly have a baby in arms who cannot be stepped on or moved aside. So it’s beneficial to prepare the pet for these periods of independence before the due date.
If there are any known triggers for fearful or defensive behavior in your cat and dog, such as bicycles, novel or high-pitched noises, or nighttime movements in the home, you should be prepared to address this before the baby comes. Remember that you might be using a stroller near the dog, the baby or her toys make new and squeaky noises all the time, and you will be up and about in the night like you likely haven’t been before. You should work with a board-certified animal behaviorist in advance to desensitize your pet to these stimuli, so as to replace nervous reactions with content and relaxed ones before baby comes home.
Finally, be sure that your pet responds reliably to your verbal cues around the house such as “Sit,” “Go to Place” or “Lay Down”, and “Come.” Well before your baby’s arrival, you should work with a qualified dog trainer who can effectively utilize positive reinforcement to teach you and your dog how to communicate effectively on these basic tasks amid mild in-home distractions.