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A new baby is very exciting! However, the changes can cause great anxiety and distress in pets. Pet parents must be educated on preparing their pet for the baby, the importance of continued attention and affection, as well as how to encourage a bond to form between the baby and fur baby, so they can coexist happily and safely.

The problem with a new baby - from a fur baby perspective!

The arrival of a baby is a busy time and pet parents have their hands full with settling, feeding, nappy changing, bathing and cuddling the new addition. Fur babies can feel left out! Pet parents can often feel anxious about bringing a newborn home and pets can sense this. This can make pets feel anxious and unsure about the situation, and will link this negative feeling back to the baby. In addition, walks and meals may be missed or at an unusual time and new smells and sounds can cause anxiety and fear. This may lead to anxiety based behaviours such as house-soiling, destruction or vocalising, possessive displays and in very rare cases, aggression.

Overall training

It is important that pets understand the boundaries and have established behaviours with reliable responses. Dogs need to understand basic commands 'come', 'sit', 'bed' on cue, and cats need to know the boundaries for adventure, such as, are they allowed to jump on the kitchen bench? All desired behaviour should be reinforced. Having these basics down pat means that pets can be easily controlled and involved in all things baby, so they too can enjoy this exciting time!

Before the baby arrives

With many months to prepare, pet parents can gradually introduce and adjust their pet to all the new baby things, so it isn't a shock the day the baby comes. Pets must be rewarded for appropriate behaviour with treats, a favourite game or a rub on the belly! Here are some starting tips:

  1. Establish boundaries early. If the dog or cat will not be allowed in the nursery, install a screen or baby gate so they cannot enter. Staying out of the room should be positive, with a game or treat to follow. If they can enter, provide comfort with a favourite bed and a few toys, and teach them to stay calmly on the bed whenever the pet parents are in the nursery.
  2. Introduce the animal to the idea of a baby. Dogs must be taught to walk calmly beside the pram, and pets should be introduced to the baby carrier or car seat for car trips. Getting dogs used to a halter or harness can be helpful to enable better control of the dog when carrying the baby.
  3. Pets should be exposed to baby related smells early on. This includes creams and powder, and baby clothes from friends and family. Along with this, pets should be introduced to other babies and children as an important part of their learning.
  4. Once the new baby comes along, there will be a lot of new noises, particularly crying, which can be upsetting to pets. A great way to get pets used to the noises is to play a recording of a baby crying, initially softly, then louder, including at meal times or if they are trying to rest.
  5. Walking the dog or feeding dogs or cats at the same time every day are things pets come to rely on. A schedule will be harder to keep to when the baby comes along. Pet parents should start to alter their routine, skipping walks on some days and changing meal times (especially delaying meals!) before the baby comes along. This way, the pet won't associate this change with the new baby.
  6. Before the baby comes along, it is important that the pet has an established rest area or 'safe haven' that is away from noise and commotion, particularly if this area will be different to where they slept before. There should be comfortable bedding and toys.

It's a boy! It's a girl!

The aim for pet parents is to teach the pet that good things happen with the baby around, so treats and toys must be at the ready at all times. Here are a few tips for whenthe baby comes home:

  • Before the baby comes home, introduce the pet to the smell of the baby. Bringing home some worn baby clothes or a blanket and allowing pets to become accustomed to the smell is important.
  • It is a good idea for someone else other than the pet parents to hold the baby when greeting excited pets. A leash can be used to introduce dogs that are hard to control or jump, to reinforce calm, positive behaviour, and avoid negative reinforcement which the pet will associate with the baby being present. Pet parents must be relaxed around pets, so they don't sense stress, which could make them fearful of the baby.
  • The pet should be integrated into all things baby. Pet parents will need to multitask, carrying around treats and toys to engage their pet while attending to the baby. For example, when changing a nappy, a Kong® for the dog or a mouse on a string for the cat can associate the baby with exciting games. Treats can be offered when the baby is crying and pet parents can offer treats to encourage pets to sit calmly beside them when the baby is being fed.
  • Licking, growling and hissing are normal pet behaviours. Pet parents can say 'no', but should not negatively reinforce or offer reassurance. While normal, these behaviours should be acknowledged and seen as a warning sign that the pet is unhappy. Changes need to be made to the situation, such as distancing the pet and baby, until the pet is more comfortable.

Quality time without the baby

Encourage pet parents to set time aside for one-on-one quality time with their pet, playing, grooming, patting and cuddling. This will prevent unwanted behaviours that result from a lack of attention and will provide mental and emotional stimulation. If pet parents are worried about not providing enough exercise, a dog walker a few times a week could take some of the pressure off.

The baby is starting to walk and crawl!

As the baby grows, they will recognise the pet and want to play. All play must be supervised, as rapid arm and leg movements, poking and tail pulling can be distressing for the pet. Children should be taught from an early age how to interact nicely with pets, and a quiet, child-free zone for the pet to escape to must be provided, to prevent other behaviours, such as biting, to make the child go away.

Unwanted behaviour

For unwanted behaviour, advise pet parents to seek specialist behavioural advice as soon as possible. Talk to pet parents about using pheromones and homeopathic remedies which help some animals. Depending on the age of the pet, underlying conditions, such as arthritis, could be a complicating issue so make sure pets are checked out and treated/managed appropriately.

A reminder about zoonotic disease!

It is important to remind pet parents about the risk of zoonotic diseases to their family. A zoonotic disease is one which can be passed from animals to humans, and includes parasites (e.g. roundworm and tapeworm) and the infections parasites carry (e.g. bacteria such as Rickettsia or Bartonella transmitted by fleas). Children are most at risk as they are often in closest contact with pets and the outside environment which can be contaminated with worm eggs from the poo of infected animals. To minimise the risk to families, all pets in the household must be on regular parasite prevention, such as Advocate monthly, which protects against fleas and worms, or Drontal every three months, which controls intestinal worms. Additionally, everyone must wash their hands after play and before eating, sandpits need to be covered to prevent animals from using them as a toilet, and poo should be removed from the backyard regularly.

Article written by Bayer Animal Health