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Preparing Your Pet for a New Baby
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When I was pregnant with our first son, Ben, my husband and I seemed to spend as much time worrying about how our dog was going to react to the new addition as we did worrying about how we were going to handle having a new baby. Without nearby friends with babies, we resorted to buying a CD of baby coos and cries to acclimate her (and yes, us) to the cacophony that was to come. Knowing that her life was about to change, we spoiled her with treats and long, early morning visits to the local dog park, and we did a lot of plain ole’ hoping for the best. As we later learned, we did a mix of right and wrong, all with the best of intentions. Ultimately, when the time came to introduce the two, our canine baby promptly threw up all over the carpet, then walked into Ben’s nursery, where she had explosive diarrhea. Not exactly the scrapbook moment we’d been hoping for.
If you’re a cat or dog owner and are expecting a new baby, or even thinking about getting pregnant, read on for must-know advice on how to best prepare your pet.
Understand How a Baby Will Affect Your Pet
For many couples who don’t yet have kids, their pet is their baby. You may sleep with your pet, travel with your pet, make homemade food for your pet, and spend your weekends at the park with your pet. It makes sense, then, that the introduction of a human baby rocks your pet’s world. His daily life is drastically disrupted (animals are creatures of habit), he doesn’t get nearly as much attention, and he may be fearful of the new screaming beast in his home (his territory). In short, the arrival of baby is stressful for your dog or cat.
Animals exhibit stress in different ways, from house-soiling and vomiting to clinginess and increased barking or whining to aggressive behavior.
Taking gradual steps to adapt your pet to what her new life will be like can go a long way in minimizing that stress and preventing those negative behaviors, says Dr. Melissa Bain, Assistant Professor of Clinical Animal Behavior at the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
Everyone we spoke to, from veterinarians to professional trainers and pet owners, strongly suggested starting preparations well in advance of baby’s arrival. In fact, Dr. Bain recommends that people should start preparing their pet to be around a baby or small children from the very beginning of pet ownership to ensure that pets will be safe around all children. “Ideally, before they’re even thinking of having a kid, pet owners should teach their pets how to safely be around kids. That means teaching them to follow commands, being consistent with their pet, and using positive reinforcement.” But don’t worry if you haven’t
Take Your Pet to the Vet
Dr. Bain says that one of the most important first steps in preparing your pet for a new baby is to take him for a veterinary check-up to make sure he’s up-to-date on vaccinations and otherwise healthy.
During the check-up, take the opportunity to ask your veterinarian any questions you might have about your pet’s behavior as it might relate to your baby, particularly if your pet has anxious or aggressive tendencies. Your veterinarian may have suggestions helpful to your particular pet or she may be able to refer you to a veterinary behaviorist or dog trainer for additional help.
Brush Up On the Basics
If your pet isn’t very polite, now is a good time to teach her how to mind her manners. If you need help training your dog, you can learn more about the kinds of pet trainers and behaviorists through the American Society for the Protection Against Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The ASPCA also offers online guidance through its “Virtual Pet Behaviorist” and can help you to teach your dog essential commands like how to sit, stay, lie down, “leave it”, settle (go to her spot), refrain from jumping, and come when called.
Additionally, Nicole Stewart, a certified pet dog trainer with AnimalSense and instructor of the “Baby and Bowser” seminar at Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, encourages expectant parents to ignore attention-seeking behaviors, where the dog dictates when he wants to play or be petted (by bringing a toy or nudging his owner). She suggests engaging a dog when he is lying down or playing by himself, so that he learns that he is not in control of his owner’s time and attention.
Give Your Pet Less Attention
If you’ve spent much of your free time with your dog or cat up until now, offering ample attention and affection, it’s a good idea to start spending less time with your pet (or at least less time actively engaging your pet) in advance of the baby’s arrival. We know, it’s hard to purposely ignore your little buddy, but it’s for her own good. Wombacher suggests proceeding slowly: “Wean the dog of your time and attention gradually; you don’t have to shock her, but you do want to restructure the relationship in an appropriate way.”
Consider what your daily schedule might be like once the baby comes, too, and then start implementing those changes in advance. For example, if you think that your regular early morning walk will likely disappear once baby-induced sleep deprivation hits, gradually eliminate that walk or at least begin to shorten it, advises Wombacher. In general, life with a new baby can be hectic and sometimes unpredictable, so it may also be helpful to prepare your pet for a less consistent schedule by varying her feeding times.
Enforce New Rules Now
Know that once baby comes Fido won’t be allowed to join you in bed or jump up on the couch? Plan to deny access to certain rooms? Enjoy doggie kisses but don’t want your baby covered in slobber? If possible, start helping your dog or cat acclimate to those changes well in advance, so that she won’t associate her loss of privileges with the baby’s arrival.
Think about the layout of your home, Wombacher suggests, and whether or not you want to limit your pet to certain rooms, e.g. the nursery. Then start implementing those limitations ASAP. Even if you do plan to allow the dog in the nursery, he adds that it may be beneficial to teach the dog that entry is by invitation only. If Mom plans to breastfeed in the room and wants to have the dog by her side, place a dog bed next to the glider and teach the dog to immediately lie down on the bed upon entering.
Desensitize Your Pet
With the arrival of your baby comes a host of new sights, sounds, and smells that may unsettle your pet. Help prepare your dog or cat get used to some of these new sensory experiences as early as you can, suggests Stewart. Let your pet sniff around the car seat, crib, or bouncy seat before the baby is born, he says. Turn toys and gadgets on, so your gets used to their flashing lights and obnoxious sounds. Invite your pet to become familiar with the products you plan to use on your baby as well, like diapers, diaper creams, and lotions. Stewart also suggests playing a CD of baby sounds to help accustom your pet to the new noises that will soon fill your home. Click here (link TK – final page of ss) for CD suggestions.
Beyond getting your pet used to a baby’s accoutrements, it’s a good idea to get him used to actual babies, too, says Dr. Stephanie LaFarge, an ASPCA psychologist. Arrange a couple of visits at your home with a willing friend who has a baby, recommends LaFarge. “Some animals are just gaga over babies, some are curious but guarded and watchful, and some are absolutely terrified,” she says. “You should know that [about your pet] before the baby is born.”
Practice with a Doll
Some behaviorists recommend using a baby doll to help prep your pet. Pretend to feed, carry, and rock the doll while your pet is paying attention. Although it will feel ridiculous, it can help you gauge your pet’s initial response to a baby and let you know which obedience skills you need to reinforce.
Rachel Friedman, a Cleveland-based professional dog trainer and owner of A Better Pet, also recommends practicing walking your dog while pushing a stroller. Some dogs may be scared of the stroller or may be harder to control without both hands, so some advance training with walking next to the stroller may be of use.
Get Your Pet Used to Curious Kids
Although your baby’s arrival will bring much change for your pet, it often isn’t until several months later, once your tot becomes mobile, that your dog or cat may have an even bigger adjustment to make. Again, allowing your pet to visit with a baby in your home may help her to adjust to babies’ erratic and unpredictable movements. You can also help your pet get accustomed to baby’s (potentially rough) touch by gently touching your pet’s paw pads, ears, face, tail, and belly. Then, Wombacher suggests, “Teach the dog to tolerate, at least to some degree, having his ears, tail, etc., pulled. You can give him treats while this is happening to desensitize him.”
Make a “Go Bag” for Your Pet
In addition to preparing for baby’s arrival at home, you’ll likely need to make a care plan for your pet during labor and delivery. Ideally, you’ll want your pet to be with someone he already knows, whether that means that a friend or family member comes to stay at your house, your pet stays at their house, or you send your pet to a boarding facility. If you haven’t ever boarded your pet before and can afford a trial run, send him for a night or two so that the facilities are familiar and a stay there during the birth will be less stressful. Have a bag ready with your pet’s food, medications, toys, and instructions in case you have to drop him off unexpectedly.
Make the Introductions Calmly
While you’re still in the hospital or birthing center recovering, have your partner bring home a baby blanket or cap to let your pet sniff the new baby’s scent. But if that’s not possible, don’t stress. While it’s probably the most common bit of advice when it comes to your pet meeting the new baby, it’s not make or break. The most important thing to do when making the introductions? Stay calm. “Act like everything is normal,” says Stewart. “Bring the baby in the infant carrier as if nothing is different. Wait for your dog to get less excited and then put the carrier on a coffee table or on the ground once he’s relaxed. Don’t force the relationship between your dog and baby, it will develop over years to come. There’s no need for them to be best friends the second the baby comes home.”
Create Positive Associations
After the baby’s arrival, Wombacher suggests isolating the dog when you child isn’t around (when he goes down for a nap in the crib, for example). Then, let your dog out and give her a treat when the baby wakes up. Eventually, your dog makes a positive association with the baby: “When the tiny human is around, I get attention and treats! I like this tiny human thing!”
The place for isolating your dog should be a safe, comfortable space where she can retreat and relax if she needs a break, as well.
Experts agree that any dog or cat is capable of biting or lashing out. Even if your pet has been docile and loving for years, you don’t know how she’ll react to being poked, prodded, and squeezed by an excited infant (animals can’t always distinguish between friendly and threatening touch). Your dog’s temperament may change, too, as she ages. And, when bitten by dogs they know, younger children are most frequently bitten in the face, head, and neck. Though it’s scary to think about, a dog of any size is capable of killing an infant. The lesson: Never leave your child alone with a pet, for both of their sakes.
•Good Dog, Happy Baby by Michael Wombacher
•Childproofing Your Dog: A Complete Guide to Preparing Your Dog for the Children in Your Life by Brian Kilcommons and Sarah Wilson
•And Baby Makes Four: A Trimester-by-Trimester Guide to a Baby-Friendly Dog by Penny Scott-Fox
•Your Dog and Your Baby: A Practical Guide by Silvia Hartmann-Kent
Baby Sounds CDs:
•Preparing Fido by Dr. Shawn Hrncir and Lisa Wood Ruggles
•Baby Sounds for Pets by Kristen Overdurf-Abud
•SoundsGood CD: Babies by Terry Ryan