You are expecting — congratulations!
You and your family are so excited, but what about your first baby: the four-legged, furry one? How will your pet take to your new addition? You have so many things to think about now, but don’t forget to prepare your beloved pet that has likely been an only child up until this point.
First, let’s debunk some common myths about pets and babies. Many parents-to-be believe that because you’re pregnant, the cat must go because of potential toxoplasmosis. While toxoplasmosis is a parasite that can be carried by cats, it can also be found in soil while gardening and on raw meat.
Your cat can still be a part of your family. Simply have someone else clean the litterbox to decrease any risks.
Another old-wives’ tale involves cats being attracted to the smell of milk around the baby’s mouth and sucking the breath from infants. In truth, cats are attached to snuggly, warm spaces — and what’s more warm and snuggly than an adorable infant? While you do not have to worry about cats sucking the breath from babies, you do need to be concerned about potential unintentional suffocation from snuggling. It is safest to avoid letting your kitty sleep with the baby. Keep the door to the sleeping area closed.
Our pets love us, so surely they will know that this baby is part of the family and take to the child without any problems, right? Not necessarily. It’s best to take the time prior to your baby’s arrival to prepare your pet. In the months awaiting your new bundle of joy, begin to teach your pet the skills needed to interact safely with your baby.
If you have a dog, begin as soon as possible to work on basic dog obedience, including down-stay, leave it, drop it, go to your spot, quiet, no jumping and move away. Perfecting these commands will help prevent your pet from jumping up and scratching your baby, picking up (and potentially ingesting) a pacifier or tripping you on the stairs, and allow removing your dog from an unsafe situation. While it is our nature to want to lavish attention on your pets prior to the baby’s arrival, it’s better to gradually decrease the attention your pet received to lessen the impact on your pet later on.
Babies require lots of supplies. Take the fear out of all the new equipment and supplies by setting up cribs, swings, pack-n-plays, etc., early on so your pet becomes familiar with these strange new things. You can use a baby doll to set up different scenarios to see how your pet will react and to train preferred behaviors (keep in mind that your pet will figure out the doll is not a real baby, but it is still a good tool with which to work).
Babies also make a lot of strange noises that can be disturbing to pets. Purchase a CD or download sound clips of baby noises, and play them softly while giving your pet treats. If your pet remains calm, you can increase the volume gradually, while still pairing it with positive reinforcement.
Begin going for walks with your dog and the stroller (with the doll if needed) to get your dog accustomed to the new arrangement. This way your pet can still be an active part of the family after your baby comes and get some much-needed exercise. As tempting as it may be, never hook your dog’s leash to the stroller, as even a small dog can accidentally pull it over.
Your routine will change dramatically with the introduction of your new baby, and that means your pet’s routine will change as well. Spend the last couple of months of your pregnancy preparing your pet for the impending changes. Decide if your pet will be allowed in the baby’s room, and begin that boundary training now. Using a tall baby gate or screen door keeps your dog or kitty out but still allows your pet visual reassurance of your presence.
Never allow your pet to sleep in the baby’s crib, bassinet or pack-n-play. Your pet may currently sleep with you and be allowed on furniture, but if that will no longer be the case after your baby comes, make those changes now. Provide a comfy bed on the floor or in a different room for your pet. Work with your pet on staying quiet and settling into the spot when you get up in the middle of the night to check on your baby or to nurse. If the location of the litter box is going to change, do it now to help prevent any inappropriate elimination. Pheromone plug-ins, available from your veterinarian or pet supply store, can be used to help ease the anxiety for both cats and dogs.
Take advantage of the time before you need to worry about a car seat. Schedule your pet’s wellness visit with the veterinarian before your baby’s arrival, and make sure all vaccines and health tests such as intestinal parasite tests are up to date. Discuss any concerns with your vet and inquire about additional aids such as calming supplements. Decide where your pet is going to ride in the car once the car seat is installed, and begin transitioning now. Consider the use of a pet safety belt, pet carrier for confinement or barrier system to keep both your pet and baby safe.
When it’s almost time to bring your baby home, make sure you have a friend or family member who can care for your pet or make arrangements to take your pet to a boarding facility during your hospital stay (which could be in the middle of the night).
When entering your home with your baby for the first time, allow your baby’s dad or someone else to carry your child so you can greet your pet. Keep the reunion calm, and spend a few minutes with your four-legged friend. Your pet will have missed you! Once your pet is calm, provide treats to your pet while in the same room with your child. Once comfortable, introduce your baby by allowing your pet to sniff your bundled baby’s blanket or feet, offering gentle praise and treats in association. Consider keeping your pet on a leash, and be prepared to remove your baby if your pet gets overstimulated.
One of the most important things to remember is to never punish your pet around your baby, as this causes a negative association with your new little bundle of joy. Avoid scolding situations, and instead work on positive reinforcement with treats, chews, praise and fun toys. If necessary, remove your baby from the situation and work on redirecting negative behavior. Don’t hesitate to consult your veterinarian, veterinary behavior specialist or respectable trainer to help with specific issues.
Remember, even if your pet and baby appear to be best friends, to avoid potential disaster, never leave them together unattended. If you must step out of the room, take either your pet or your baby with you. You may be exhausted, but take advantage of your baby napping to spend quality five-to-ten minutes alone with your pet, playing or snuggling.
Plan for your baby’s arrival and start training your pet now — but try not to stress! As your baby grows, remember it’s just as important to teach your child to respect pets as it is to teach your pets how to be around children. Once your baby starts crawling, that’s a whole different story…
Ann M. Brown, DVM, is a veterinarian at Hawthorne Animal Hospital, Overland Park, KS.