“Good luck still celebrating Scruffy’s birthday once you have a baby”
Hello fellow mothers and animal lovers!
Did everyone tell you that your dog or cat would take a back seat once you have a baby?
How about everyone asking “Where’s Scruffy in this picture?” for ages after you welcome your sweet new addition? (Was I supposed to have Scruffy with me when we were at the mall getting Santa pictures?!)
Or perhaps people have snickered at you when you compare your experiences raising a puppy with raising your baby? (Seriously! There are lots of parallels!)
These are all rights of passage for people who are crazy for (read: who love and adore) their animals, but also love and adore their human babies. You don’t have to choose, but just as you have to re-adjust when you go from one child to more than one child, there certainly are some adjustments and some precautions that should be addressed when you are bringing a baby home to your fur babies. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good place to start.
Establish a Plan
Once you know you are expecting, it is a great idea to have a plan for bringing your little one to meet your pets when coming home from the hospital. There is so much going on and going through your head once you have this new little life to look out for, so knowing the plan of attack ahead of time will greatly ease your own stress which will translate to your pet also feeling less stress. The plan could involve one parent taking home some things that smell like the baby ahead of time so that they meet the scent before they meet the baby. It could also involve another friend or family member taking your furry companion for a couple of days so that you have some time to adjust to being home and your pet doesn’t join the mix until you have your ducks in a straighter row.
Prepare Your Pet
A new baby in the house means more noise, more furniture and “stuff”, and less time for your attention. The more of this that you can expose your pets to before the real baby is there, the better. It sounds silly, but even try playing YouTube videos of screaming babies on loop from time to time, or causing a big commotion in a normally quiet house so that this is less unfamiliar to your pets for the real deal. Many a childless evenings in my house before my baby girl was born, there were screaming YouTube babies blaring through the halls! Make sure to have the baby’s things dispersed throughout the home so your pets have time to adjust to this change as well.
And finally, I am not suggesting that you should try to ignore your pet to prepare them for the sharing of attention, but it is a good thing to promote devoted attention and divided attention. What I mean by this is, of course, having plenty of time where you lavish your pets with the normal attention they are used to (and make sure to devote some time to this once the baby arrives as well), but also help them establish ways to cope with your attention being divided. This could be by getting them used to, and happy with their kennel or crate again by giving them treats or a peanut butter Kong etc, so that they look forward to going in there. It could also be by simply having a special treat or toy that you give them at a certain time, and taking that time to go do something separate from them. This way if you notice you are unable to give them focus for a stretch of time due to your new baby, they have a routine they are already familiar and happy with for when you are preoccupied. This treat or toy should be reserved for these situations only to strengthen the positive association as much as possible. The stark contrast of you being 100% theirs to much less than that can be a bit easier to handle with some previously established coping mechanisms.
Do not force an introduction
However you decide to time the introduction, I recommend exposing your pets to the smell of your baby ahead of time (with a sleeper or a blanket they have used at the hospital perhaps). This will make the new smell a little less surprising when it is attached to your baby. When you do bring your baby home, it is important not to be forceful in presenting him or her to your pets. Your pets should be given as much time as they want before your baby is introduced and you should be in complete control of the introduction. It is important from the very beginning to establish that they cannot freely engage with your baby without your permission. Your pets gauge a lot from scent, so allowing them to sniff is perfectly acceptable, but you should always be in a position to remove your baby from the situation and you should teach your pet that when you instruct them to disengage, they are to obey.
Do your best to give your pets attention
I truly do know from my own personal experience that it is difficult to impossible to maintain the level of focus on your pets that you had before you had a baby, and all that you can do is try your absolute best. Some strategies I can recommend are: having you or your partner commit to a certain length walk or playtime daily, and Make. It. Happen. While one of you is tending to the baby, the other can be devoting some time to the pets. Even if all you can manage is 15 minutes, it will still make a difference. Another one is: think of activities that you can do with both your pet and your babies (more applicable to dogs). For example: going on family walks or to the beach, or on camping trips. And finally: give both your baby and your pet attention by working on training your pets on how to interact with your baby. Most pets enjoy being engaged in training sessions (could it be the treats??), and it will help establish a positive association between your pets and your new little one.
Start teaching your baby how to treat your pets ASAP
This one is interesting! You would be very surprised at how early instructing your child on animal interaction can have an effect. It seems like when you are the one that has to move their hands to touch an animal that it wouldn’t make a difference, but using the word “gentle” and very gently stroking your pets with your baby’s hand can start to ingrain in them the idea that you should be gentle when touching an animal. Lots (most? all??) of babies develop a tendency to do some swatting as they turn into toddlers, and this habit is easily directed towards unsuspecting animals if they are around your baby a lot, and this can obviously create dangerous situations. Your baby will understand the instruction of “gentle” and be more likely to comply quickly if they have had this displayed and taught from a very young age. Leading by example is also important.
MOST IMPORTANT: NEVER – EVER – EVER – TRUST YOUR DOG WITH YOUR BABY
I am focusing more on dogs here, although I do feel the same applies to cats. It just cannot be stressed enough with dogs. There is no such thing as a dog that should be trusted alone with a baby. I don’t just mean: “Any dog can have an unexpected reaction to a situation”, although I will come back to that. I also mean that your perfectly lovely dog, who does not break from their loyal gentle self, can STILL harm (or worse) your baby without meaning to do so. From laying on them, to stepping on them, to trying to steal the baby’s blanket and pulling them out of their bassinet, there are many ways that a dog who never shows any signs of aggression or prey drive can still harm your child. In regards to the issue of harm via unexpected aggression or prey drive, it really is true that this could happen with any beloved family dog, completely irrelevant of breed or temperament. It comes down to instincts and natural reactions. It doesn’t mean your dog is mean or generally dangerous or anything like that, it is merely that the consequences can be too severe to take any chances in regards to this. The lives of our children, and our animals, are far too precious to leave anything at all to chance. DO NOT EVER TRUST YOUR DOG ALONE WITH YOUR BABY.
Try to avoid all of your baby-pet interactions being in the form of “No”
This can actually be pretty tough! When you are trying to establish boundaries for your baby and your pet, and you are short on time and patience, it is easy to end up constantly having to say “No” to your pet. Be sure to bring the focus back to rewarding your pet for good behavior as much as possible, and to promote behaviors that you want to continue (like giving your pet lots of attention and maybe some treats when they calmly lay by your feet when you’re sitting on the couch with your baby).
I would like to finish off by touching on the beautiful thing it can be to raise your child with beloved family pets in the mix. That is why these tips, tricks, and precautions are so important. I have had the good fortune to see so many of these special bonds through working as a veterinarian, and also have felt the warmth and comfort of a special kitty by my side my whole childhood.
It has been such a wonderful and fun thing to watch my baby girl grow close with our dog Mary (who she calls “Maymay”), and gently lay her head on her saying “awwww, Maymay”. The unconditional, undying, never faltering love that we feel from our pets is life changing. I love watching it unfold for my baby girl! Everything that we can do to help promote the fostering of that bond opens our children up to a richer life, as the human-animal bond is like no other!
Dr. Katie Bell is a veterinarian, wife (to William), dog (Mary) and cat (Marcellus and Nancy) mom, and proud mother of one beautiful human baby girl named Maria. She graduated from the Atlantic Veterinary College on Prince Edward Island in 2012 and worked as an Associate Veterinarian at Mayfield Veterinary Clinic from 2012-15. She is originally from Saint John, NB, and moved back here once she had her baby girl in order to be closer to family. Having her baby inspired her to pursue a career path that gave her more flexibility to spend time at home, but she also saw a niche in her profession that she felt both the desire and need to fill. She started Seaside Home Veterinary Care, which provides quality veterinary care in the comfort of your own home. This allows people who have transportation issues, mobility issues, or various other circumstances to have much easier access to veterinary care. She knows from seeing it done in clinics many times, that it can be difficult for parents to load multiple children and multiple animals into a car for a vaccination appointment and loves being able to ease the stress of this for people!