Health & Development
Pets & Babies
As a dog trainer, I often see new parents overwhelmed with both their new baby and their first baby – that is, their dog or cat.
Bringing a new baby home is incredibly joyful and stressful for everyone in the family, human and animal alike. But with a little time and attention, you can make the transition easier on yourself and your pet. Here are a few things to consider:
Before Baby Arrives, Desensitize!
Desensitizing your pet to the sights, sounds, smells and movements that come home with a new baby will go a long way to reducing your pet’s stress.
The process of desensitization means pairing high-value treats, or something your pet really likes, with a “scary” stimulus, or something that may make your dog nervous or uncomfortable.
Children – not just toddlers who may pull on fur or handle pets roughly, but also newborns with their high-pitched cries or babies with their erratic movements, babbling, crawling, and cries – can be scary to an animal that has never been around them.
Here are some tips to desensitize your pet.
- Touch – Gently touch, tug or squeeze the areas most commonly targeted by the curious hands of babies and small children (especially ears, feet and tail) while simultaneously giving high-value treats. Do this frequently, daily if possible, in the months leading up to your baby’s birth.
- Sounds and Movement – Buy recorded sounds of infant or baby cries and toddler noise, and gradually expose your animal to these sounds while giving high-value treats. After some time, leave these sounds playing as ambient sound in your home so they become part of the background noise your pet associates with the comforts of home. Also desensitize your pet to the sounds and movements of baby equipment and toys. Dogs have especially sensitive ears, and toys with electronic sounds are often high-pitched. Turn on those moving toys, swings and strollers before baby comes, so that your pet gets used to them, and pair the noise and movement with tasty treats and lots of affection. Many families also now use white noise machines to lull baby to sleep. Try lulling your pet to sleep with these same sounds before baby comes home.
- Smell – Introduce your dog or cat to the smell of your new baby before you bring the baby into the home. Have someone take one of your baby’s unwashed blankets or hats home and place them near your pet’s bed, as you would a pet toy or snuggly. When baby arrives home, bring the pet over to the baby (rather than bringing baby to pet’s sleeping or safe place) for a whiff. Don’t push it. It’s just an introduction. Although there’s no research evidence that this test smell improves baby-pet relations, giving your pet a scent hint certainly doesn’t hurt.
Add Another Class to Your Baby Preparation List
If your dog needs a little “fine tuning,” consider enrolling in a good basic obedience class before baby arrives. Add it to your list of baby classes, right up there with childbirth preparation, breastfeeding and postpartum care.
In particular, it is helpful to train your dog to respond to “wait,” “leave it” and “go to your place” commands.
If your dog exhibits any guarding behaviors (of food, toys or space) get professional help to fix this potentially dangerous behavior well before baby arrives.
Statistically, dog bites occur most often when a dog is sleeping, eating or cornered. So before baby arrives, assess the space where your pet sleeps and eats and make sure he can always do both of these things free from harassment. If you need to move your pet’s eating or sleeping spot to create more space for your family, do so well in advance of the baby’s arrival.
Keep an Eye on Your Newborn Radiator
Newborns and babies are notoriously warm and cuddly. Cats may find your tiny “radiator” an enticing spot for a nap, for example, and may find it nice to curl around the top of baby’s head for a snooze. According to the ASPCA, it is a myth that cats smother babies. If you see your cat gently sniffing your baby’s face, be sure to praise him for this behavior. Still, while most cats are sensitive enough not to cover a baby’s face, discourage cats from sleeping near your baby, in her bassinet or crib or on her bouncy seat.
Give your cat an alternative space – one that you make very appealing, even more appealing than the baby's bed – perhaps by regularly sprinkling catnip on it, putting a hot water bottle underneath it for warmth, or giving your cat special treats when she is in her own bed/space.
You may want to consider rubbing citrus oil around the edges of baby furnishings (cats generally shy away from citrus smells). Be warned, however, that over-the-counter sprays (and even citrus for that matter) do not always work and some sprays may not be good for baby.
Crawlers and Toddlers
The first consideration for your baby or pet is always, of course, safety. Most problems between pets and children begin once the child is mobile, so be extra cautious once your child starts crawling and walking.
Take care with common household hazards such as kibble left out (choking hazard) and water bowls (drowning hazard).
Even the sweetest animal can lash out when she feels threatened or pushed, so never leave a child unattended with a dog or cat.
Your pet’s safe space should always be off limits to the child. Be sure to have a crate in a house so your pet has a place to “get away.” A nice, high perch (preferably with a comfy bed and scratching area) works well for a cat.
And finally, dogs are curious about interesting smells, so be sure to get a dog-proof diaper container!
Danette Johnson is a licensed veterinary technician, certified pet dog trainer, and an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen evaluator. She is owner of Dogs Day Out, a Seattle-based pet care and training service. For more information go online to www.dogsdayoutseattle.com
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Excellent, more detailed advice is available from the ASPCA, written by veterinarians and animal behavior specialists. Go to www.aspcabehavior.org. Click on your pet (dog or cat) and then write the words “new baby” in the box when prompted “What is your pet doing?” Or, click on the links below.