Families expecting new babies have so much to do, from planning a nursery to stocking up on diapers and onesies, it can be easy to forget that your first baby—your pet—is going to need some extra TLC and time to adjust.
“You should start preparing your pet as soon as you know you are expecting,” says Melissa Pezzuto, a behavior consultant at Dogtown, part of Best Friends Animal Society. “It’s never too early to get your pet used to the sounds, sights, and smells that a baby brings.
Start Before the Baby Arrives
While older pets who are set in their ways may need a little more encouragement—they’ve been the only baby in the house up to now, after all—when it comes to preparation, the basics are the same for dogs and cats of any age. It’s all about positive reinforcement. “Find recordings of baby noises—crying, laughing, screaming, cooing— and play them around your pet. Play the noise, and then give your pet a delicious snack or fun toy,” Pezzuto says. This way, your pet will associate those noises with good things, like getting a treat. Same goes for baby things like cribs and strollers. And a little extra education couldn’t hurt, either: “If you have a dog, this might be a good time to enroll in an obedience class to get a refresher on manners,” Pezzuto says. “You will also want to gradually get them used to a new schedule before baby comes.”
Get Them Familiar with The Baby’s Scent
Battles have raged for decades between cat people and dog people about which pet is superior. But they both have humans beat in one department: sense of smell. Use their superior sniffers to help them get ready to meet the baby. Apply some baby powder or baby oil to your own skin to acclimate your pet. And before you bring the baby home, the American Humane Society recommends having your partner take a blanket or hat home to your pet so they can get used to the baby’s scent.
Plan a Low-Key Entrance
Your pet might be eager to get a look at the squirming bundle in your arms, but take your time before the initial meet and greet. “Dogs shouldn’t need to touch, sniff or lick the baby to be aware that there is a child” in the house, Pezzuto says. And while your dog or cat may be the most gentle creature you’ve ever encountered, your baby is still a stranger to them. “To animals, babies can be foreign and scary. They make weird noises and have erratic movements,” Pezzuto says. “Animals can become fearful very quickly and react.” Never leave an infant alone with the dog or cat, and never place a baby in any position that gives an animal unrestricted access to the baby’s face or body.
When the initial excitement has worn off, Pezzuto says, a calm meeting can take place.
Set Up a Calm First Date
When your dog or cat is showing no reaction to stressors like crying and screaming, “you can feel more comfortable that your pet has become used to the baby,” Pezzuto says. The first meet and greet is a two-person job: An adult should be holding the baby securely, and another adult should lead the leashed dog over to the baby. “Once the dog sees the baby, they should be calmly refocused and rewarded with food by the leash-holder. If the dog is calm, he can be allowed to sniff for a few seconds, then led away once again and given lots of rewards and praise. Speaking in happy, calm voices can help.”
Pay Attention to What Your Pet is Telling You
“Body language is so important,” Pezzuto says. “That’s how animals communicate with us.” She says that a dog that’s “loose and wiggly” is likely comfortable. But new parents (and lots of other pet owners) often fail to pick up on subtle signs of stress, like lip-licking, yawning and “whale eye”—when an animal shows the whites of its eyes. More obvious signals are raised hackles, tucked tail, and pacing. Your first instinct may be to scold your dog if she snaps or growls, but don’t do it. “A dog should never be punished for growling,” Pezzuto says. “That is their warning signal to us that they are uncomfortable. If we silence their growl, they will move on to more extreme behaviors like biting.”
As for cats, watch the tail. “A low or tucked tail can mean that they are fearful or anxious. A very bushy, high tail can mean they are angry. Ears back or to the side can mean they feel frightened or threatened,” Pezzuto says. “And an arched back with upright hair can mean that they are very upset, and you should probably back away slowly.”
Give Your Fur Baby Her Space, Too
“Pets should have a quiet, safe place that they can go to when they want to be away from the commotion,” Pezzuto says. This is when crate-training your dog can really pay off; cats should have a tree or “hidey hole” they can retreat to. “These places should be safe, and children should not be allowed to disturb them when they are resting.” Make sure that pets and kids are always separate when either one is eating; and children should never try to take food from a dog. “Kids should learn to treat animals with respect. That includes no pulling, grabbing, riding,” Pezzuto says. “Many animals are tolerant and will allow it to happen ... but every animal has their limit and when pushed, will bite. This is especially true for older animals or animals that may be in pain. And things like hugs and kisses that humans view as affectionate can feel intrusive to your animal. “Animals show affection in different ways, and for many of them, hugging is seen as restricting, especially if they are unfamiliar with the person doing the hugging.”
Take Part in Family Activities that Include Your Pet
While interaction should never be forced on either side, “going on family walks is a fun way for the whole family to interact” and for animals to have a positive association with the children. Once they’re old enough, kids can help with pet care. “Kids make some of the best trainers, and there are often courses at your local training center that are specifically designed for kids. Playing fetch or playing with species-appropriate toys is a great way for children and pets to bond, Pezzuto says.