By Julio López, DVM, Special to Everyday Health
When a new addition to your human family is on the way, things are sure to change with your pets at home. Careful planning with your pets before the baby arrives will make it easier for the animals to become accustomed to the new situation.
Follow these tips for a smooth transition into a new routine that continues to meet your furry family members’ social and physical needs while keeping the baby safe.
1. Start Training When Pets Are Young
Ideally, puppies and kittens should have supervised exposure to children, as this interaction will help form a foundation for living with children later on.
For pets adopted at an older age, this may not be possible. But in all cases, get pets comfortable with having their ears, fur, and paws pulled by starting to do this gently, and rewarding them for allowing you to do so. Over time, gradually increase the intensity to imitate what a toddler may do.
2. Train Your Dog Early
Basic commands, such as “come,” “sit,” and “stay,” become even more important when children are around; all dogs should know them. An “over there” or “go to your place” command can also be invaluable.
Training dogs to avoid unnecessary barking, and teaching them simple manners, such as not jumping on visitors, not begging for food, and not jumping on the furniture, will also come in handy. Getting pets accustomed to periods of confinement (in a bedroom, bathroom, or crate) will also make it easier when such measures are needed in the future.
3. Supervise Pets and Kids Constantly
Never leave pets and kids unsupervised.
Most animal bites involving children occur when the child initiates an interaction while a pet is resting or eating. Eliminating free feeding, and setting a feeding schedule to coincide with a child’s meal times, will help avoid interaction while eating.
This will also help diminish begging behavior since the pets will be busy with their own food. For pets that finish their meals in seconds, try a puzzle feeder to help slow them down and provide extra enrichment.
Fear may also be a trigger for pet aggression. Crawling and walking kids can be scary for pets, so make sure pets have room to move around.
4. Train Your Kids, Too
Toddlers and older children need training, too, so that they learn how to properly interact with a pet. You can start by using a stuffed animal, then show children pictures of pets sleeping, in a corner, or eating to demonstrate inappropriate times to interact with a pet. A computer game called The Blue Dog is available from the American Veterinary Medical Association that teaches kids when they should and shouldn’t interact with pets.
5. Make Decisions About Pet Restrictions
Parents need to decide whether pets will have access to the nursery or a child’s room, and should add a baby gate or a closing door to rooms that are off-limits. If a pet will be allowed into the nursery, initiate supervised trips to allow the pet to investigate and become accustomed to the furniture before the baby arrives. Appropriate calm behavior should be rewarded.
6. Practice to Make Adjustments Easier
The sights, sounds, and smells of a new baby might make pets anxious or fearful. Playing the sounds of a laughing and crying child is one way to familiarize pets with these strange noises. Use a doll to practice activities such as using a stroller, changing a diaper, and carrying the doll wrapped in a blanket to help pets become accustomed to these soon-to-be daily activities.
7. Share Your Baby’s Scent
If possible, drop a blanket or clothing item off at home that has been in contact with the baby at the hospital so that pets can begin to investigate and familiarize themselves with the baby’s odor.
8. Greet Pets First When Your Baby Comes Home
Ideally, parents bringing home their baby should enter the home first, followed by a third person the pets already know who is carrying the baby. This allows the parents to greet the pets, calm them down if needed, and guide them to a separate room or crate. Once everyone is calm, pets should be allowed to enter the room where the baby is.
For multi-pet households, introduce pets to your baby one at a time. Don’t force the introduction; instead, allow the pet to approach if they’re interested. And don’t take care of all your pet’s needs, like feeding and playtime, while the baby is asleep, because this may inadvertently teach your pet to form a negative association: When the baby is present, you ignore the pet.
9. Spot Signs of Trouble Early
Interrupt any sign of aggression in a pet, and isolate the animal immediately. Redirect unacceptable but non-aggressive behavior with another command (“sit” or “over there”), followed by a reward when the command is heeded. Speak with your veterinarian for a referral to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist at any sign of aggression, or if any unacceptable behavior continues.
With preparation and proper training, pets will have an easier time adjusting to the new member of the family. Remember, no matter how well-trained you think your pet is, a toddler or child should never be left unsupervised with a pet. Making time for both the baby and your pets will help ensure a smooth transition for your growing family.
PHOTO CREDIT: Michelle Gibson/Getty Images