Preparing Your Pet for Baby
Like many young couples, my husband and I had “furry children” — our beloved dogs — before we had human kids. So when we were expecting our first child, our concerns included our pooches.
How would they react to the new baby? And what would happen if that meeting didn’t go well?
The last thing you need is anxiety when you’re expecting your child. The good news is that before your baby arrives you can work with your cat or dog to make that first encounter — and the rest of the pet/child interactions — go as smoothly as possible.
Take steps now, suggests Dr. Kimberly LoGuidice, emergency veterinarian at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital of the Carolinas. A mom herself, LoGuidice knows how hard it can be for pet owners to become parents.
“We treat pets like humans, but sometimes roles have to change when a baby comes along,” she says. “You don’t ever think you’ll give your pet less attention when the baby comes along, but the painful truth is, you probably will. When you have a baby, the amount of time and attention she takes is huge, and you’re so exhausted, too.”
If you start making changes in your pet’s training and interactions prior to the baby’s arrival, your pet may be less likely to see the baby as the reason your attentions have changed. Here’s how to get started:
Know your pet. You know your pet best, but this is the time to take off any rose-colored glasses and really assess his personality traits, says Jennifer Shryock, founder of the Dogs and Storks program. “Know your dog’s sensitivities,” she says. “Know how they respond to different sounds or changes in appearance or odor. Take a good look at how your dog responds to things.”
By getting a good handle on whether your pet is afraid of loud noises, for example, you’ll know that a baby’s shrill cries might stress your pet, and you can take steps to calm him or gently remove him from the room once a crying baby’s on the scene.
Recognize signs of stress in your pet. In dogs, familiar signs of stress may be a “frozen posture,” when his entire body is perfectly still and tense; lip-licking; yawning; crescent-moon eyes, when you can easily see the whites of his eyes; or retreating from the room.
Most cats will retreat or hide if they’re stressed, so be sure your cat has ample places to go and doesn’t feel trapped in the room with the new baby.
Think about safety. “If your dog is always jumping up on you, nudging at your hand or even jumping on the couch with you, you’ll want to extinguish those behaviors before you’ve got a nursing child in your arms,” Shryock says. Work with a trainer if you’re unsure how to train your dog effectively.
If you have a cat, pass litter box duties to another family member while you’re pregnant to avoid toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that poses a risk to a developing baby.
Cats are notorious for wanting to snuggle with someone warm. So be sure the cat’s out of the room before you leave your sleeping baby alone to reduce the chances of your baby getting scratched by a disgruntled crib mate.
Be sure your pet is healthy. “Take your animals in for a checkup to make sure they’re healthy and not uncomfortable or in any pain,” LoGuidice advises. “An unhealthy pet would be even more uncomfortable if the environment changes, like a new baby in the house.”
Reward good behavior. When your dog or cat responds calmly and positively to the new arrival, reward him with praise, playtime or a food treat. Your goal isn’t to completely separate your two “children,” but rather to create a calm environment of trust and acceptance.
Give your pet a safe place. Whether it’s a gate for your cat to jump over or a dog crate safe from noise and an older child’s poking fingers, giving your pet a quiet place to retreat to is key. He’ll have a designated spot to find calm and de-stress, and you’ll have more peace of mind, too.
What Your Family Dog Needs to Know
Along with regular exercise and veterinary checkups, good obedience training is a must for a family dog. In addition to the usual sit, down and heel, teach your dog these skills:
Go to your spot. This sanity-saver gives your dog a place to go when things get chaotic. Put your dog’s crate or bed in a quiet spot. Toss a treat onto it and tell your dog, “Go to your spot.” Let children know the dog is not to be disturbed when he’s in his spot.
Leave it. This command keeps the dog from pouncing on dropped bottles or pacifiers. With the dog on a lead, put a dog treat on the floor and tell him, “Leave it.” The second he stops trying to get at it — and especially if he looks up at you — quickly give him an even better treat from your hand (like cheese or a tidbit of chicken) and praise him.
Off. The last thing you need when you’re carrying your baby is the dog jumping up on you, too. Teach him “off” by never, ever touching him when he jumps up on you; don’t even push him away. Instead, turn your back so he drops down to all fours. Then, bend down to pet him.
Kathleen M. Reilly is a former dog trainer and vet assistant who frequently writes on pets and parenting topics. She lives in the Triangle area.