Many parents describe their dog or cat, usually with a smile on their face, as their first ‘baby’… the companion they nurtured when they were just a young couple or maybe even before they met. And when a newborn baby comes into the house many parents are worried how the family dog or cat will respond. The good news is that it’s very rare to see major problems, but there are definitely some steps and strategies that will help smooth over any transition.
Dogs live in a hierarchy
Dogs view life with a pack mentality, and believe that each member of the family, or pack, has their position in the hierarchy and their role to play. And they don’t tend to believe in equality – even if you think everyone in your house is equal, the loyal family dog has you all lined up from top to bottom, at least in his or her mind. In most cases, dogs see themselves as the protector of the house, and this can work well when integrating a new child into the family.
Dogs view babies as a privileged member of the family, and would not generally see a young child as a threat. They will usually behave quite protectively with a new child, often keeping their distance but at the same time keeping a watchful eye. Cats on the other hand generally view a new child with a vague but passing curiosity, and may show a little interest at first but will then usually go their own way and try to avoid close contact.
But in both cases, the best way to smooth over any transition is to make sure changes are gentle and the pets still feel like they are a valued member of the household.
Prepare in advance
The first thing I suggest to new parents is to start preparing well in advance. Set up a special area for your pet, if they don’t have one already. I normally recommend a pet bed, basket or cat gym. This should be placed in an area of the house where the pet feels they are part of the family, but should also allow them a little peace if they need. One good choice is in a quiet corner of the living room. This area should be their safe place, and is off limits to children and other disturbances.
The next stage of the introduction starts even when the mother and child are still in hospital. I normally ask the father to bring home a swaddling blanket that the baby has used in the hospital. Place the blanket somewhere in the living room, on a chair or sofa, and allow the dog or cat to learn the new baby’s smell. Pets will nearly always show interest in the blanket and the new smells, but don’t force it on them, just allow them to become acclimatised.
When the new baby comes home, take a moment to introduce the dog or cat. I suggest parents hold the baby and gently lower them down to let the pets sniff the blanket and the baby’s lower body. However, for hygiene reasons I recommend people avoid their pet’s licking the baby excessively, especially around the face.
One product that can really help with keeping a pet calm and contented during any introduction is a pheromone diffuser. These release an odourless pheromone that has no smell or effect on people, but works as a natural signal to a dog or cat that their environment is safe and they can relax. It is not a drug and has no sedative effect, but is extremely effective in tackling any anxiety. The cat product is called Feliway and the dogs use Adaptil.
As the days go on, the family pets should be allowed to interact with the baby, have a sniff when the baby is lying or playing and be involved. Try to let the dog or cat feel that they are part of the experience rather than being displaced by this new member of the family. But of course this should be supervised at all times and the pet should never be forced to interact. And on a related note, cats should not be allowed to sleep in the same room as the new baby, as they could try to snuggle up to the baby in the cot which may potentially be dangerous. If it is unavoidable that the baby and cat sleep in the same room, a cot net to cover the baby and prevent the cat from jumping in the crib would be recommended.
Don’t forget to spend time with your pets
The other vital part of the equation is to make sure the family pet still feels important. New parenthood is a very busy time, but make sure to set aside ten minutes a day to have pet-only time, where the pet gets to play or go for a walk with the owners without the baby. And also make sure that the pet gets fed regularly, and the baby should never be allowed to play with the pet’s food or around the feeding area.
However, It is important to remember that dogs and cats are animals, each with their own personality. Some pets will take much better to children than others, and in any situation where there is a pet and child interaction parents need to be attentive and careful. In general, dogs who are nervous, anxious or get fearful in new situations (such as barking excessively or very timid behaviour on walks or when guests visit the house) may be require more care and attention during the introduction. Parents should never allow a risky situation to develop, and signs of potential problems include a pet who growls or hisses, raises their lip or snarls, snaps, barks at a child, always tries to avoid interaction with a child. In these cases don’t force the pet to interact. In these cases we should take it more slowly and not put any pressure on the pet to spend time with the child. If you are in any doubt or there is any possibility of a risk I would suggest contacting a qualified pet trainer who can help with the introduction.
And of course the respect should be taught both ways. Gentle love and play should be encouraged, but with the best intentions young children are enthusiastic and interact by reaching and grabbing, often with little warning. This can make pets uncomfortable, and if surprised they may even nip back. Also make sure the new child doesn’t encroach on the pet’s special bedding area or disturb a sleeping pet.
The pet’s toys should always be just for the pet – don’t let your child take or play with them. Most importantly, a child must never disturb a pet while they are eating or try to take food or treats from the dog – instinctually many animals are very protective over food and may snap if someone interferes with their dinner.
But above all else, don’t worry. It’s extremely rare to see any issues as long as a parents follow a few basic guidelines and exercise a little common sense. Allow the pet to be part of the family and involve them in the integration of a new family member. Use that natural hierarchy to make them feel like they have a role, and make sure they still get some one-on-one time so they don’t feel displaced or forgotten. Give them a safe place to call their own that they can retreat to when it all gets a bit much. But of course make sure there is never a situation which could be dangerous or make the pet feel cornered or threatened. And with a bit of luck you’ll see a different maternal or paternal side of your pet, and watch a new bond of friendship grow.
Dr David is a small animal veterinarian from Creature Comforts Veterinary Housecall Practice, and is also the proud father of two young girls, two dogs, a cat and some fish, all of whom get on very well together.