Bringing home a new baby is a big transition for everyone in the family, even pets. Preparing your dog or cat for a new baby is not unlike informing children about a new brother or sister who will be joining the family, according to the Animal Humane Society. The advocacy group warns that pets that are used to being the center of attention may experience something similar to “sibling rivalry” when a new baby comes into the home. The trick is to ease your pet’s stress or jealously to ensure a smooth and safe transition.
Tips to start before your baby comes home:
- Take a gradual approach. You can minimize the stress on your pets and minimize any resulting bad behaviors by gradually decreasing the amount of time you spend with them. This way they can become accustomed to the new status quo. New parents who drastically cut off their pet’s attention or frequently scold, ignore, or isolate them will likely trigger more stress.
- Vaccinate. Be sure to properly vaccinate your pet. Also talk to your veterinarian about other heath precautions, such as flea and tick medications, and how to safely administer them.
- Spay or neuter. Not only do sterilized pets typically have fewer health problems, they are also calmer and less likely to bite.
- Train. Address any pet training or behavioral issues before the baby comes home. For example, if your pet’s behavior includes pouncing or swatting, you will need to redirect or stop that behavior as soon as possible.
- Groom. Have your pet groomed to reduce the shedding of fur or dander. Also trim your pet’s nails.
- Desensitize. Get your pet accustomed to baby-related noises well before your newborn comes home. For example, play recordings of a baby crying or turn on the mechanical infant swing.
- Brainstorm what if? scenarios. For example, if the phone rings while the baby is in a swing, or if a parent or caregiver needs to go to the bathroom, they should be ready with steps to ensure pets are not left alone with access to the baby (such as putting the pet in a crate, or moving the baby to a playpen).
- Introduce pets to baby's scent. Before introducing your pets to a newborn, allow them to smell and investigate an article of the baby’s clothing or a blanket that has the baby’s scent so they can become familiar with it.
Pets may also be excited when you finally arrive home with the baby. It’s a good idea to bring the baby to another room before greeting your pet until they have a chance to calm down.
Safety tips you can take after your baby comes home:
- Establish barriers. Discourage your pet from sleeping on or jumping on the baby’s bed or furniture, such as the crib or changing table by applying double-stick tape to the surfaces. You can also cover your crib with a screen to prevent cats from getting in. Alternatively, you can make the baby’s nursery completely off-limits to your pet by setting up a safety gate or even installing a screen door. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also recommends keeping pets out of your baby’s sleeping area to help reduce the risk of fur or dander irritating the baby’s breathing passages.
- Supervise. Always supervise any interaction between your pets and your infant. Be watchful for any signs of animal aggression, such as cat spraying, barking, or nipping. Babies should never be left unattended where a pet may have access to them.
- Be patient. Pets need time to adjust. Rewarding them for good behavior around your baby will help pets learn what you expect from them.
- Keep baby away from litter boxes. Cat owners should be sure to keep litter boxes out of their baby’s reach, and thoroughly wash their hands after changing the litter to avoid toxoplasmosis—a rare disease caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which can be found in cat feces as well as raw or undercooked meat.
Pets can make bringing a new baby home a bit stressful, but as the AAP notes, extra attention and discipline of your pets will solve most pet problems. Relatives, friends, and older siblings can also ease the transition by spending a little extra time with your pet and providing some extra reassurance that your pet still has a place in the family. A bumpy start isn’t always a sign that the two won’t get along. Often pets just need time to adjust to the new addition.