Bringing home baby…to your four-legged child

Written by Dayna Kurtz

We all know the dog is a man’s best friend, but what happens when “best friend” meets new baby?

For some couples, the first children are of the canine or feline persuasion. I was a mother of two domestic shorthairs at the time I brought my newborn son home from the hospital. I will never forget the ways in which my two cats greeted me. Walking across the threshold, my son cradled in my arms, both cats stared me down in the way that cats do. Sitting on the couch, one cat jumped up beside me, sniffed my son’s head and promptly began to purr — a resounding sign of approval. The other? He ran under the bed and didn’t come out for hours.

Bringing home a baby presents a wealth of changes for you, and it can affect the life of your first “baby,” too. How Fido or Fluffy reacts to your bundle of joy depends on many factors — personality, breed and whether the animal is accustomed to babies, among them. Ultimately, you can never be 100-percent sure how things will play out until your baby is home with you and your pet. However, there are a number of steps you can take, both before and after baby comes home, to help prepare your first child to meet your second: 

  • If you haven’t already spayed or neutered your pet, the time to do so is before baby arrives. Dogs and cats that have been spayed are less aggressive and, therefore, less likely to scratch or bite when your future toddler inevitably tugs on that tail. These animals also typically have fewer health issues, which means fewer trips to the vet for you, and a happier pet overall.
  • Before your pooch meets his new sibling in person, give him a blanket with your babe’s scent. This can help him become familiar with the new family member. Let your dog take a sniff or two and follow it up with his favorite treat and a good head scratch. 
  • Cats are especially sensitive to sound. Help them acclimate to the cacophony of infant sounds by inviting over a mom friend and her newborn. If you’re the first of your friends to have a baby, check out YouTube for some videos of crying babies and play them on repeat. You may wind up with a headache, but your cat will be better for it. 
  • It’s a good idea to train your pet to tolerate a nail trim anyhow, but especially important with a baby on the way. Cats are usually more tolerant of nail-trimming if you introduce them to the practice when they are kittens. If you have an older cat that is unwilling to sit for a trim, there are adhesives you can buy that slip over the nails and can be replaced periodically as the nails grow out. Declawing is painful for a cat. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) states: “Onychectomy [declawing] is an amputation and should be regarded as a major surgery. [It] should be considered only after attempts have been made to prevent the cat from using its claws destructively or when its clawing presents an above normal health risk for its owner(s).”  
  • Unless you have a home birth, chances are you’re going to be gone for awhile, which means your pet will be especially eager to see you upon your return. Dog owners will do well to give their K-9 kid an opportunity to expel some of that excitement before the main event. Have your partner, a friend or other family member greet your dog first. If your dog is especially attached to you, have someone else hold the baby outside while you calmly and lovingly reconnect with your dog. When you decide to introduce your dog to your baby, it’s a good idea to have another human helper on hand and to leash your dog for the initial meet and greet. Your cat may appreciate a more subdued experience. Take a few moments to say “hello” again in a calm, quiet setting before bringing in baby. 
  • You should be clear about whose toys belong to whom. Separate the cat and dog toys from your baby’s toys and keep them so. Your pet needs to understand that he is not allowed to play with the baby’s rattle. Similarly, your baby shouldn’t have access to your cat’s catnip cigar or your dog’s chew-toys either. I’m all in favor of learning to share, but the lesson is better reserved for person-to-person not person-to-pet.  
  • Babies should always be placed on their backs when it’s time for bed, as this position makes it easier for them to breathe (until they are old enough to turn themselves over). Dogs and cats should be kept out of the nursery. Avoid a well-intended cuddle from turning tragic.  

Ideally, your baby and your pet will get on splendidly. The cat that purred at my son’s arrival continues to be his best bud. My other cat, sadly, was not able to adjust to the new kid on the block. Rightly concerned about our newborn’s safety, we had to find our feline child a home that made things safer for him and our baby. It was necessary, and it was hard, as so many important parenting decisions can be. If you need help, speak with your veterinarian about a referral to a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT) or applied animal behaviorist (CAAB). 

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