Updated: May 24, 2020
When it comes to bringing a new baby home to your pets, there can be a lot to think about. Are you supposed to kick the dog out of the bed? Is the litter box really that big a deal? How do you keep baby toys away from pets? Will the pet become jealous? Will the baby be safe? While I can’t address all of that in a blog, I can tell you that NOT preparing ahead isn't the best idea. Lack of preparation can upset or stress pets, resulting in behavior issues like “accidents” in the house or attention seeking behavior like vocalizing or destructive behaviors. This is not a jealousy issue, but rather stress, frustration, and confusion. Unfortunately, such behaviors often find pets relinquished to shelters because it’s just too much for new parents to handle in addition to a newborn. By preparing pets ahead of time, parents can help reduce distress to pets, negative association with the baby, keep babies safe, and keep pets in the home. While each household is, of course, unique – here are a few tips that can make a big difference.
Time for Attention
You will have less time for the pet once the baby arrives. Your pet will be talked to, looked at, and touched much less. Get him used to it now rather then suddenly after the baby arrives. Try gradually reducing the quantity of “random” interactions with the pet (such as snuggling on the couch, or “absent minded petting), because this is what pets will miss the most. Replace that quantity of interaction with quality interactions. Instead of an hour of snuggling on the couch, instead have 20 mins of play or training.
Training the Right Way
Reward-based training that teaches pets what they SHOULD do rather than punishing them for making the wrong choice is the best way to build confidence and good communication. Training dogs to stay off furniture or out of baby space, dealing with known behavior problems, and introducing basic manners should happen as far in advance as possible. The fastest and easiest way is to work with a pro. Don’t know how to choose one? Check out this great resource, if I do say so myself.
A great trainer will help you learn how to handle your pet away when his curiosity gets the better of him and he comes to sniff your new bundle. Rather than scolding or pushing away, instead, reward every time the baby is around so he associates the child with GOOD things. Punishment can quickly create a negative association with your child's presence. (i.e.: "when she's around, I get in trouble"). This is especially crucial when pets give warnings. Growling, hissing, and other warnings are the only way your pet has of warning your child that she's too close; they may be telling you they’ve had enough and need space. Never ever punish a pet for growling or hissing, or you risk teaching them to not to give warnings and instead go straight to a bite. Instead, praise your pet for choosing to communicate, remove the child, and call a professional right away.
Never, ever leave any pet unattended with the baby. No exceptions. To a pet, a newborn baby does not look, smell, or sound familiar. It is not part of the family. To them, it’s not even human! They do not have motor control, they sound weird, and they smell funny. Imagine if you found an injured bunny on the side of the road, and you brought it home. Would you ever leave it unattended on the floor? Or prop it up on top of the pet for a “cute photo”? No? Why not? Because you would assume it’s natural for a pet to investigate that little bunny with its mouth or paws. To a pet, there is little difference and we forget that pets are born with instinctive behaviors that can be triggered in a split second. But this doesn’t mean pets and babies can’t live safely together! We put sharp objects out of reach, cover the outlets, and put locks on cabinets. With proper supervision, precautions, and training the vast majority of pets can live in complete harmony with baby.
Remember, pets cannot be trusted around children, and children cannot be trusted around pets. Most pet bites occur when the child is left unattended with the pet. You have about nine months to prepare so don’t just baby-proof the house; remember to baby-prepare the pet too! If you’d like to learn more, please be sure to check out an upcoming Pet Meets Baby workshop co-presented with Jane Greco Deming in Warwick RI.