Your Pet and Your Baby: help your pet adjust to your new baby
You don’t have to choose between them!
• Preparing your pet for the new arrival
• Including your pet; giving equal time
• Encouraging a positive relationship
Helping a pet adjust to the arrival of a new baby is much like preparing a young child for the same event. Handling the “child’s” curiosity, anxiety, and increased insistence for attention may seem to add too many extra problems to your already hectic household.
However, you don’t have to exclude your pet from your home, and you don’t need extra time (or extra hands) to help Rascal adjust to the big changes ahead…you just need to make good use of the time you have.
“Adjustment” is the most important concept to remember during this important time of transition. You can make gradual adjustments to your lifestyle, making every association with your baby a positive experience for your pet. In addition to the baby itself, Rascal will need help adjusting to other major changes in your household:
- new smells and sounds
- new routines
- new physical environment
- new role and rank in the family
Changes bring anxiety for your pet. It is these changes, not the baby itself, which cause problems for Rascal. Some of these changes cannot be avoided – they’re part of parenthood. However, you can prevent major anxiety (for your pet and for you) by understanding that these changes affect those aspects of life which are most important to pets. Think about Rascal’s perspective and make adjustments gradually…before the baby arrives.
Sounds and Smells
Your pet is very sensitive to smells and sounds and uses these special abilities to gather information, especially about new situations. From Rascal’s point of view, you and your home have specific identifying smells (almost like fingerprints) that are uniquely yours. There are also certain sounds which Rascal considers “normal” for your household. Even the different tones of voice you use send important signals to your pet.
Your new baby won’t actually change those scents and sounds that are part of your identity, but the new arrival will certainly add some very different ones. It is important that you introduce these smells and sounds gradually and in a calm, pleasant atmosphere.
PREPARATION – Each time you introduce something new, make the experience positive. Stroke your pet; give treats; give lots of praise for good behavior when faced with a strange new sound or smell.
Relax! If you are anxious, your pet will be anxious as well. You want your pet to have pleasant memories of these experiences so that the baby’s arrival won’t seem so alien and threatening.
Recognize what sounds are normal for your household. Pets (especially dogs) tend to feel alarmed and defensive about unexpected sounds. Take a few minutes to be aware of the usual sounds of your household, including voices.
Is your home normally quiet, with little background noise? If so, how does Rascal react to “extra” sounds (vacuum, telephone, kettle)? If your home is normally hectic, your pet may simply sleep through the usual noise. But how does Rascal react when something unusual occurs?
The more strongly Rascal reacts to unexpected sounds, the more important your task of helping your pet to adjust to the “baby sounds” which will become a regular part of your home.
Recognize what smells are prominent in your household and in your own personal scent. Be aware of the products you use which help create your individual “scent-print” that is so important to your pet – soaps, hair care products, toothpaste, deodorant, laundry detergent, cologne, etc. Your home also has its own mixture of smells, including your scent, which makes it seem familiar and safe – cleaning products, kitchen odors, even dust.
Any new smells should be added gradually, layered on over a period of weeks. Be aware of the effect these changes have on your pet. Try to keep one part of your home smelling “right” for Rascal. (see section below on “environment”).
Borrow some baby sounds and smells. Visit with a friend’s baby (or a nursery) and make a tape recording of baby-sounds – gurgling, laughing, screaming, crying, kicking, etc. Handle the baby and absorb some of the smells of baby lotions, powders, and foods. (Your own baby will have a unique smell, but you can bring home samples!)
Go directly home to spend some positive, relaxed time with your pet. Give Rascal a meal, a massage, or another pleasant experience while the baby smells mingle with your own odors and you introduce the recorded baby sounds. Start out with the volume turned fairly low (appreciate this possibility while you can; real babies don’t have volume control knobs!). If your pet doesn’t react strongly to the sounds, gradually increase the volume to a normal level.
As you play the tape, look at your pet and speak calmly; use your pet’s name. Smile! It adds a special tone to your voice that helps your pet relax. Repeat these sessions daily until the baby’s arrival.
After a week or so, add the actual sources of the odors to the sound-and-smell sessions. Buy the supplies you will use for your own baby, and think about your pet’s perspective. How does a baby bottle smell when it’s freshly sterilized? when it’s dirty? Be brave; “borrow” a dirty diaper and let your pet become accustomed to that smell, too.
Borrow a baby! After a few weeks, combine baby sounds and smells (which should be familiar by now) with the bustle and attention of a visiting baby. This is an excellent rehearsal for the extra visitors and attention you and your baby will receive during the first few weeks after delivery.
TRANSITION – After you bring the baby home, be aware of the ways you use your voice. Do you only speak to your pet with negative tones when the baby is in the room (“no,” “off,” “don’t,” “stop”)? Your pet will certainly connect unhappy feelings with the baby’s presence. While you hold the baby, smile at your pet and use your pet’s name. Give your pet a small treat when the baby is fed to distract your pet from the smell of the baby’s food. Make time with the baby a treat in itself.
PREPARATION – If you will be redecorating, rebuilding, or merely rearranging your home, do it early. Let Rascal explore (with supervision), and then exclude your pet from any area which will be off- limits after the baby’s arrival. Screen doors are excellent, inexpensive barriers for off-limits areas (especially the baby’s room). Rascal can see, smell, and hear all the action – so can you!
WARNING! If an off-limits room has been a favorite area for your pet, this change will be a major one. Move Rascal’s favorite things from this room into another area, in the same arrangement if possible.
To boost Rascal’s confidence, establish a private, comfortable place that your pet can use as a safe retreat. Select an area you can close off if necessary. The “time-out” room should include a water bowl, a nest composed of a soft towel (or Rascal’s bed) and some worn, unwashed clothing with your smell on it, and a litter pan for a cat. Your pet can choose to retreat here, or you can choose to confine Rascal to this safe zone when things get extra hectic.
Spend some positive time with your pet in this area every day. If Rascal must be confined in that area for an hour or so, it mustn’t seem like punishment. (see SmartHeartsm pamphlet on crate training for details on establishing a “safe zone”)
TRANSITION – Respect Rascal’s need for rest and privacy. This will become especially important when your baby reaches the crawling stage. In addition to a “time-out” area, cats should also have access to plenty of escape routes, hiding places, and perches.
PREPARATION – Routine is important to pets; they want to know what to expect. Think ahead and gradually begin establishing new routines early. Include in your adjusted schedule at least one time a day that will be “non-baby” time, quality time between you and Rascal with no competition for your attention – very important for Rascal and for you!
TRANSITION – Some of the changes in your post-baby routine won’t be permanent, like getting up at all hours of the night. Help Rascal handle temporary schedule adjustments by simply ignoring any extra attention-getting ploys used at those times. Get back to the normal routines as soon as possible.
The first priority for an animal faced with a new family member is to determine who will be top dog (or cat) in the relationship. Dogs and cats live by a “pecking order,” an unwritten code of ranking in their relationships. For most animals it isn’t really important which one comes out on top – only that the rank be decided. Whether you have one pet or several, your own position in the family’s social order should be clear: YOU must always be the top-ranking animal in your family. This will be especially important as your baby’s arrival approaches. When your position as leader of the family is secure and it is clear that the baby belongs to you, Rascal should not challenge the baby’s important rank in your home.
(NOTE: If Rascal is very protective of you or your home, is a little pushy about food and toys, has been known to behave aggressively toward other animals, or challenges your rank as leader – then you probably have a dominant pet. In this situation it is especially important that family rank and household rules be firmly established before your baby’s arrival. You may need to seek the help of an animal professional.)
PREPARATION – Reinforce house rules and manners to remind Rascal that YOU are in charge in your family. If your pet hasn’t learned basic manners or obedience commands, now is the time to start.
Re-train your dog to sit and lie down on command. This physical control will be especially important when your arms are filled with your baby and various baby equipment.
Be sure Rascal understands when (if ever) jumping is appropriate – onto people or things. If cats have always had access to any surface in your home (counters, tables, etc.), decide which places will be off-limits after the baby’s arrival. Start training now to discourage jumping onto those places. (But be considerate; leave cats access to some high-up places in your home.) Dogs should only be allowed to jump when specific permission is given.
If Rascal likes to spend time in your lap, teach your pet to ask permission before jumping up. You don’t have to eliminate lap-time completely; simply limit access to those times when you can give Rascal your full attention and an entire lap. There won’t be room for your baby and your pet (pregnant mothers already know this!)
Teach Rascal that your voice, your look, and your presence are also positive forms of attention – that you don’t always need to touch to show affection. You can do this simply by talking calmly and pleasantly to Rascal as your pet lies or sits nicely at your feet. Use Rascal’s name; smile and make eye contact. See other pamphlets in this SmartHeartsm series for detailed information on training cats and dogs.
TRANSITION– Insist on good manners from the beginning. Don’t accept any whining, growling, or pushy behavior in attempts to gain attention. But do your part – give plenty of time and attention whenever you can, but not when Rascal has demanded it!
Plan short periods of playtime, treat-time, and snuggle-time with Rascal — with and without your baby in the room. Meals should be eaten in the same room and at the same time when possible.
Teach your pet from the very beginning what should and should not be picked up. Whenever anything inappropriate is in your dog’s mouth, remove it with a firm “Drop it!” Immediately praise your pet enthusiastically and offer a toy that is allowed in Rascal’s mouth. Rule of thumb: if you don’t want it in Rascal’s mouth, don’t leave it on the floor!
Encourage a positive relationship between your “kids” by involving them in activities you can all enjoy. Settle into your favorite chair by a sunny window, with your baby in your lap and your cat on a table beside you; you can stroke both at the same time! Walk with your baby in a stroller and your dog on leash, just like you did before the baby came but with this nice addition. Share mealtimes. And when your baby gets a treat or a toy, be sure Rascal has something nice to hold, too. There is room in your family for everyone, including your new baby and your pet.
This information is part of the Atlanta Humane Society’s SmartHeart Educational Series.
The AHS depends on friends to provide funding for our services and programs of animal aid, support for individuals with animal related problems, and community animal issues.
The Atlanta Humane Society and Society For Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals, Inc. is a private nonprofit organization for the purpose of preventing cruelty, relieving suffering, and providing humane treatment of animals. The Society’s mission is to eliminate causes of animal suffering with an emphasis on education and the human/animal bond.