First of all, I hope that all of you have had a wonderful and fulfilling holiday season. As we start this brand new year, I can’t help but reflect back on the events of this past one. Personally, there is no doubt that the most important event for me was the birth of our first child, a son. As you can probably imagine, there is no shortage of animal companions at my house. For us, it was not just when two become three but rather when nine become ten. Yes, dear readers there were several different personalities that would need to adjust to our new noisy, bossy, little friend. Luckily, in this small area of new parenthood at least, we were well educated in making this introduction as smooth as possible. It only seems fitting that I pass on some of this wisdom to you in this blog entry.
The main concern of course should be for the safety of your new baby and your pets. We are lucky in that our animals tend to be pretty accepting of any new rescues that tend to come through the door. That being said, some pets can be fearful, unpredictable, anxious or even aggressive when a new baby is brought into their home. It is important to be honest and aware of your pets’ personality. Is your dog fearful around new people or reactive to loud noises? Does your cat soil outside the box when stressed? Do you have a curious critter that may be a little destructive with new household objects? Do you have an older pet that may be less patient with having their ear or tail pulled? Knowing how your pet may react will help you to prepare. There is no way to predict every outcome perfectly, but the more prepared you are, the better. If you have any concerns that your pet may act out in an aggressive or destructive manner, please bring up your concerns with your veterinarian. Your vet may be able to discuss specific training techniques, medications or even refer you to a certified behavioral specialist if necessary.
That being said, I promised specific words of advice so here we go.
1) Use your pets’ curiosity to your advantage: Cats tend to be curious about everything new in their environment. Even if it scares them at first, they want to explore, smell, and generally check out any new thing that may alter their life. Many dogs feel the same way. In general, the more time you give a pet to adjust, the better that transition will go. As such, I recommend allowing your pets to explore the nursery once it is set up. In addition, ask for an extra set of hospital clothes that was worn by your newborn during his or her stay (or just an extra hat). Have a family member or friend leave the clothing in a conspicuous area of the house before you bring your bundle of joy home. Your pets are sure to smell the clothing and thus be more familiar with you baby before the big day.
I would also recommend, if possible, allowing the pets to greet your child during a quiet time on their terms. Do not put the baby in their face or corner them while holding the baby.
If your pet gets anxious, keep an eye out for worsening of symptoms when your baby gets fussy. If this really upsets your furry companion, you may be able to distract him or her with a treat during loud times or perform a temporary separation until things quiet down. Never leave your child unsupervised with your dog no matter the size or your level of trust. This is as much for you dogs’ protection as your baby’s (especially during the toddler years). Mother’s should also be sure to pay close attention to how your pets react when you are alone with the baby whether you are nursing, soothing or simply sitting with him or her. Some pets will get protective of mother and baby. This needs to be taken into consideration especially by a well meaning father bringing in coffee or tea late at night. Others may elicit social confusion symptoms towards the baby (often mistaken for jealousy), which will need to be recognized and addressed as soon as possible. As time goes by, you will learn how comfortable your pets are with the baby and which areas still need work.
2) Have methods to separate your pet and baby safely: As I mentioned previously, we had MANY cats and two dogs who would be sharing space with our little man. Even though I wanted them to know he was coming and be comfortable with that, I also wanted a safe and clean space just for my son. As such, we installed iron safety gates at the doors and a monitor so we could shut the door at night to keep the cats out of the room.
While I am a firm believer that the fear of cats smothering sleeping babies is nothing more than an urban legend, it is better if they find other areas of the house to sleep. Alternatively, there are some owners will install screen doors at the nursery entrance to allow their pets to see and smell the newborn but still maintain a barrier.
This is pretty cool if you have the resources for such a thing. Since our cats, like many feline friends, will try to make a bed out of anything, we did strategically cover certain objects like the bassinet and changing table with towels or blankets to minimize cat hair and debris on the furniture. Our personal choice in the household is to not worry too much about hair on the furniture (“denial” is not just a river in Egypt 🙂 ), but we try to be a little stricter for the baby. If members of your family are especially sensitive to pet hair or dander, the use of a HEPA air filter may also be helpful.
3) Do not try to “make it up” to your pets: One of the most common mistakes that owners make during this transition time is to try to shower their pets with extra love and affection when the baby is not around. It is easy to see how this happens. A new mom or dad feels guilty that Fido is not getting as much attention. To counteract this, the well-meaning owner gives extra treats or pats/hugs after the baby is asleep or away. The goal is to reinforce to the pet that he or she is still very much loved, which is noble. Unfortunately, that is not how your dog (or less often cat) sees it. From his or her
perspective it is very simple. When this new loud creature is gone I get treats, love and life is amazing. When the crying new addition is around I get nothing. This leads to a very real and sometimes dangerous conclusion in your pet’s mind; when baby is around life is bad. I am certainly not recommending that you ignore your pets when your baby is asleep. Rather be sure to reward them and praise them when the baby is around ESPECIALLY if they are being friendly or quiet. This will lead to a conclusion that the little addition means rewards, which make him or her great!
4) Parasite control and zoonotic risks:
Parasite control is also very important. Dogs and cats (even if indoor only) can acquire intestinal parasites, fleas, and heartworms. Did you know that about 15% of all potting soil used for indoor plants contains eggs for roundworms? My cats love to dig around our plants constantly, how about yours? Intestinal worms such as roundworm and hookworm are zoonotic (which means they can be passed to people) and fleas can bite people or carry diseases that your baby may have trouble fighting off. Therefore, all of our cats are given a medication on their skin called Revolution every month to prevent the infestations mentioned above. Similarly, our dogs are given a heartworm pill (to prevent intestinal worms, flea eggs, and heartworm) and a topical solution to kill ticks and adult fleas every month. I have heard many owners voice concerns about applying chemicals to their pets, especially in the presence of children. I understand this concern now more than ever. The medications that we are using, however, are extremely safe and they are not harmful to people when applied to the pet correctly. There are many over-the-counter flea/tick medications that are dangerous, though, so I recommend sticking with what is recommended by your veterinarian. There are real risks for a child to acquire roundworm, hookworm, tick-borne diseases or flea-borne diseases. These diseases are easily prevented, however, with proper medication and hygiene. So do not surrender your beloved furry companion just because you will have a little one crawling around, just be sure that everyone in your house is protected.
In summary, bringing a new baby can be a busy time with a lot of new worries and concerns. Hopefully, by planning ahead and considering the advice provided, some of these can be alleviated. Of course, if anything comes up or you have specific questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to contact us at the hospital. As your veterinarians, we are dedicated to ensuring that the bond you share with your pets strengthens in the new phase of your family’s life and that your children get to enjoy your pets as well.
Zachary Weiner, DVM