Babies & Pets

By Dr. Norma C. Guy, BSc, MSc, DVM on March 09, 2007
Over Half Of Canadians Have A Household Pet

It is estimated that over 53 % of Canadians have a household pet. Of those, the majority own at least one dog or cat, with about 10% having other animals such as birds, reptiles or fish. A significant number of dog owners also own a cat.

When you add a new baby to a pet-loving household, or even visit one with pets, it's wise to read up on how to introduce the newest member of the family to the furry one. Dr.Norma C. Guy, a veterinary behaviourist and expert in companion animals, shares her advice with Best Wishes readers.

Did you ever make a honest mistake? Like people, dogs and cats will make mistakes without meaning to cause any harm, especially around children. As a responsible pet owner and parent, it is your job to protect your children, but it is also your job to be aware of what bothers your pet and not to put them in situations that make them uncomfortable.


Make Changes Before You Bring The Baby Home

Pets and kids can mix successfully with some care and preparation. Get the dog ready for the idea that he (or she) is not going to be the centre of attention anymore. If possible, make changes in your routine with your pet before you bring the baby home. You need to teach the dog that it can't be underfoot all the time and he needs to accept that it's okay to be on the other side of the baby gate sometimes.


The Key To Safety Is Adult Supervision

Be sensible. Most problems between pets and children occur when there is a lack of adult supervision or when the pet is startled, cornered or overwhelmed by the child. A few pets seem to have a natural affinity for children, and are very tolerant of the increased noise and activity levels. But the majority of dogs and cats will have difficulty knowing just how they should react if an infant wails or a toddler suddenly grabs them around the neck.

Pets don't usually pose much risk to infants at the beginning because they don't have a lot of interaction with them. Toddlers are much more likely to get injured because they are more aggressive and don't realize that their actions may be hurting an animal. They haven't yet developed empathy. They also don't pick up on the warning signs an animal may give. That's why adult supervision is key, particularly at this stage.

Ideally, all dogs and cats should be socialized to children. It is important to remember, however, that even the best socialization and training cannot completely eliminate the risk of a pet injuring a child.


Bringing Home The Baby

When you are introducing a new baby to your family pet, it is important to understand (and be understanding of) normal dog and cat behaviour.

Dogs are very interested in new smells. Add to this the excitement of seeing mom again if she has been in the hospital for a couple of days and you will understand why your dog may be very wound up when you walk in the door with a new baby.


Introduce The Baby's Smell To The Pet Before Bringing Home The Baby

It is generally a good idea to bring home an used article of clothing or blanket belonging to the baby, before you actually bring home the baby, so that your dog can investigate it freely in a relaxed manner.

Make Your Return Entrance First Without The Baby

When it is time for the baby to come home, mom should go in the door first by herself to greet the dog. Once things have settled down a bit, then the baby can be brought in.

Don't scold your dog for being curious about the baby. You don't want to make him afraid of the baby. A dog that isn't afraid is less likely to be aggressive or bite.

Most cats will want to do a little harmless investigation of the new baby by smelling it, unless of course the whole situation has sent the cat scurrying under the bed.

Teach your dog to learn to behave in a relaxed way around children. Do not get annoyed with him, when he is trying to investigate the baby. Punishment will only make him more more nervous or unruly.

Don't separate the baby and the dog all the time. Teach your dog that you will be very pleased with him if he lies quietly nearby when the baby is present. Remember to reward the behaviour you like, either with praise or food, rather than getting angry with the dog when he does something you don't like.


Your Pet Needs Your Attention Too
Caring for an infant may make you less likely to pay attention to your dog and cat, and they are going to miss that attention. You may feel like you just don't have the time or energy to walk your dog. It's also common for new parents to forget to do something like cleaning out the cat's litter box. All these things can make a pet anxious and more likely to show unwanted behaviour.
Dogs and cats that suddenly start misbehaving after a new baby arrives are not acting out of jealousy. They are worried and disturbed by the changes in their routines.
Just like children, pets benefit from a certain predictability in their lives, as well as an understanding of their needs.

Tips For Families With Young Children & Pets
  • Manners: Teach your dog a few basic manners that will make life easier for everyone after the baby is born. Dogs don't need to be obedience class stars to learn to respond well to a few useful commands. For example, using treats you can teach your dog to go lie on a special mat on command. This will get him out from underfoot when you are busy with the baby.
  • Walking: If you want to be able to walk the dog while the baby is in the stroller, you should practice this routine before the baby is born. A head halter instead of a regular collar will improve your control when you are also pushing a stroller.
  • Adult supervision: No infant or toddler should ever be left unsupervised with a dog, even if adults are just in the other room and the dog has a history of being good with children.
    Dogs rarely mean to deliberately injure anyone, but they can find the behaviour of small children disturbing or even frightening which can result in a bite. In extremely rare circumstances, dogs have been known to react to newborns as if they are prey because of their small size and high pitched crying.
  • Baby gates: Can be very helpful in keeping pets and small children separated. This is particularly true once the child starts crawling, which is the age they are most likely to accidentally hurt or frighten a dog or be injured.
    Spend some time getting your dog used to the idea that his movement in the home will be restricted in this way.
  • Exercise: If you have a new baby, make sure your dog is still getting enough exercise, even if it means hiring a neighbourhood teenager to walk him on a regular basis. Exercise will reduce your dog's anxiety about the changes in the household and the way you interact with him.
  • Hugging: It is normal for a dog to become agitated when he sees someone carrying a child or another pet, or when he sees two adults hugging. To a dog, hugging looks dangerous, and he may feel like he needs to do something about it to keep everyone safe.
    If your dog is agitated (jumping up, barking, restless) when you carry your child, you can teach him to sit for a treat instead. This helps him to learn that there is no need to worry.
  • Old wives tales and cats: There is absolutely no evidence to the myth that cats can suck the breath from infants. They may sniff because they are interested or curious.
    Cats do not deliberately smother babies, but they may want to sleep near or on a baby simply because they are attracted to the warmth and softness.
    Once a baby is old enough to push himself up on his knees or into a sitting position, there is little risk from a too cuddly cat. Until that time, measures should be taken to keep a cat from sleeping too close to an infant.
  • Safe sleeping: Use mosquito netting to cover the crib, or close the cat out of the room. Harmless motion-activated spray cans that startle the cat are available and can be used to teach them to stay away from a certain area.
  • Cats make ideal pets for people with small children: A friendly, well socialized cat is very tolerant of kids. Cats don't tend to be aggressive. If a baby or toddler goes after it, a cat's usual reaction is to simply to scoot.
    Cats are very adaptable and learn quickly to stay out of the way. Because of this, they are much easier to manage than dogs and much less likely to scratch or bite. A cat is rarely a problem with a child.
    A cat also isn't a lot a extra work for new parents. You don't have to do much for them other than feed them and change the litter. In fact, if you are looking to adopt a pet, an older cat from a shelter will probably be just dandy with your kids. Look for a friendly animal who seems sociable and calm, even in the noisy shelter.
  • Litter box tip: If you're having difficulty finding the time to scoop the cat's litter box every day, set it up so it doesn't require such frequent attention. For example, you can use a much larger litter box (such as a plastic storage box designed to fit under a bed) and fill it with clumping litter.

In most cases, this will keep your cat happy and prevent accidents outside the box, even if you only scoop every two or three days.

Ferrets Are Not Child-Friendly Pets
Some animals are not safe with infants. For example, ferrets are not suitable pets in households with young children. They can be very aggressive and have been known to injure babies.

It's All About Common Sense
The key is adult supervision when children are very young. It's just common sense to stay vigilant when there are young children and pets in the house. BW

Dr. Norma C. Guy is an Assistant Professor, Dept. of Biomedical Sciences at the Atlantic Veterinary College, University of Prince Edward Island. Dr. Guy teaches animal behavior and animal welfare as well as running AVC's clinical behaviour service.

Published in March 2007

By Dr. Norma C. Guy, BSc, MSc, DVM| March 09, 2007

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