Change means adjustment. Just by being with new and different people, a pet’s personality can alter radically. And, by the same token, losing a beloved companion can do the same. By careful preparation, however, you can minimize the emotional upheaval and stress that are inherent in any family change – whether it means someone new moving in, such as an infant, a child, a grandparent, a tenant, or a new pet, or someone leaving the house, such as when a teenager goes off to college or there’s a death in the family. The therapy involved calls for close attention to behavior patterns and immediate diagnosis and treatment of any new personality quirks.
Introducing an Infant to Your Pet
With a phenomenal number of couples today postponing childbirth so that each can establish a career, a pet naturally becomes the kid in the household. He’s loved and pampered, he’s treated to special occasions and gifts, he fulfills the couple’s psychological need for nurturing. But, inevitably, things change. The couple begins to prepare for the birth of a child and family life. What happens to the pet in this situation? Like the first child, confused and perhaps angry about the arrival of his new brother or sister, he may feel insecure, neglected and depressed, and he may exhibit all kinds of attention-getting signals in a attempt to win back his owners’ love and affection.
An animal needs a lot of preparation for the new arrival – almost as much as the parents need. If your dog or cat doesn’t see babies on a regular basis, the sound, sight, and smell of them can be very distressing. As soon as a couple knows about a pregnancy, they should begin desensitizing their dog or cat to infants. This will save a lot of work later on, when the baby arrives, and can prevent many potentially dangerous situations.
The Infant Preparation Program
- As far in advance as possible, try to collect everything you will need for the new arrival. This way, the pet will have time to adjust gradually to the new items and won’t have to deal with them and the new baby all at the same time. (For those who are superstitious about purchasing baby item or bringing them home too early, you might ask a close friend or neighbor to keep them for you. Better still, conquer your superstition!)
- For smell and orientation, you will need the crib, changing table, bassinet, baby bath, dirty diapers, and baby oil and powder. Since the powder is irritating to some animals, start by sprinkling a little on the floor so your pet can get used to it. You can’t buy dirty diapers, of course, but you can douse some disposable diapers with a solution of ammonia and water to simulate the smell of urine – which will, of course, arrive with the baby. Some dogs and cats have housebreaking regressions when they see that newcomer is allowed to mess in the house. You can eliminate this problem by having the scent around early on and being vigilant about regular times for walks.
- For sound desensitization, you will need to download the sound of a baby crying, or purchase an audio desensitization recording like “The Sounds of Baby” CD. This will minimize the pet’s curiosity or fear when he hears the real thing. Play the download at increasingly high volumes over a period of weeks. A dog may mistake a baby’s cry for that of a cat, and if he dislikes cats, the baby could stimulate negative association for him. By using the Sounds of Baby CD or the download, you can desensitize the pet before the baby arrives.Both parents should participate in accustoming the pet to the baby’s arrival. You will also need rattles, mobiles, stuffed animals, and a doll you can hold – preferably the kind that wets and cries. Place the doll in the bassinet and show it to the dog or cat. Then pick up the doll and hold it as you would hold a child. Finally, pick it up and hold it lovingly while the mechanical doll cries or while you play the recording tape of a baby crying. Don’t push away the pet; let him gently investigate the bundle in your arms. Try to behave the same way when the baby comes. If you pull away the infant when the pet is trying to get close, it will indicate to him that something is wrong. The doll can accustom you both to the process. When your pet understands that he is not allowed to jump on the precious bundle you’re holding, he’s on the road toward learning to respect the baby. Naturally, some readjustment will be necessary after the birth, but this purchase can save a lot of steps in between.
- Several months before the baby is due, have your pet checked thoroughly by the vet. If your pet is seen regularly by the vet then he should have all his booster shots and should be checked for both internal and external parasites. If the pet hasn’t been seen by the vet in the past twelve months then have a checkup immediately and again before the due date. Be sure to clip his nails regularly so they won’t scratch the baby, and remember to bathe and brush him well just before the due date.
- Before the trip to the hospital, be sure to make arrangements for the care of your pet. Since you may both be away from the house for twenty-four hours or more, you’ll need to have someone come in for walks and feedings. If you cannot make these arrangements, have a friend take the pet home with him until you are back to your normal schedule. You’ll both be going through a good deal of stress throughout labor and birth, and a helper at home can eliminate some of the trauma that both you and your pet may experience. Choose someone who is a friend of the dog or cat, and who has fed and walked him previously. It should also be someone who doesn’t mind being awakened at 3 a.m. – in the event that is the time when you’re read to go to the hospital and will be telling him his custodianship has begun.
- When you arrive home from the hospital, make sure the husband carries your new child into the house. The wife, who may have been away for a number of days, should walk in first and greet the pet enthusiastically. If the wife carries the baby, she will pull away instinctively when the pet jumps up to greet her, indicating to the dog or cat that something is wrong. The pet may also blame her absence on the bundle in her arms, and could resent the newcomer from the outset. After the big greeting is over the baby can be brought into the house.
- Keep a closet full of pet toys and treats ready for after the birth. People will be coming in droves to give your baby presents, so it’s only fair to have something ready for your eager pet – in the past, the first one welcomed at the door by any visitor. If he suddenly is shunted aside, he will feel unwanted and neglected. Encourage your guests to give him some special attention before they go in to see the new arrival, and there will be much less jealously between child and pet later.
- As you both establish a new routine of feeding, sleeping, and grabbing a few leisure minutes when you can, be sure to alternate the time you spend with the pet. Even though the wife’s primary function in your household may be child care, it’s important to her to alternate walks and pet feeding with the husband. Particularly if the wife has been the primary companion of the dog or cat, it’s vital that she not drop out of the picture. Both owners should continue trading off these tasks, even after the baby has arrived.
- Never leave a baby and a pet alone together – for any period of time – regardless of how well they seem to be getting along. Your pet may ignore the baby, but, on the other hand, he may be extremely curious. Without meaning to, he could jump on the child or tip over the bassinet, or rake a paw over a very tender face. We certainly are not suggesting that you separate your child and your pet – that is the worst thing you can do, because it may engender instant hostility – but you should always supervise and be conservatively cautious.Never give an accident the change to happen. Use a pet gate if your dog or cat isn’t agile enough to jump one, or else be scrupulous about keeping the animal out of the room when you’re not there. When you’re finished with your middle-of-the-night feeding and are still half-asleep (or, more likely, when you’re completely asleep and working on automatic pilot), be very careful that all pets are out before you leave the room. As long as your vet has given your pet a clean bill of health, don’t worry about animal contact. A little fur and a few pet kisses are not going to hurt your baby – as long as you are always around to supervise.
- If there seems to be competition over food, or if the pet seems unnecessarily upset every time you nurse, you might consider changing the pet from two regular feedings to several smaller ones – feeding out of several dishes. This way, one of you can dish out a little pet food while the other feeds the baby – and everyone will be happy.
- Remember that a child and a pet play together like two young animals, so there will be more mouthing, nipping, and chasing with a toddler than there is with an adult. Don’t even overreact and scream at the pet for doing something that you think is threatening. If it bothers you, use your control commands and stop the play, showing both pet and child how to touch and stroke each other gently. Also, don’t yell when your delighted dog or cat picks up all the food your toddler had dropped on his way across the living room. If you scream at the pet for the infraction, he’ll come to blame the child for his punishment, and this could set up a lot of hostility between them. This is the nature of things – babies drop food and pets eat it. Try to look at it this way – it means less vacuuming for you.
- Finally, never forget that the change in your family shouldn’t mean a change in the way you behave toward your pet. He still needs family time and separate time with each of you. It’s easy to ignore a beloved cat or dog when you’re ecstatic over the birth of a child. It’s easy to assume that the pet can fend for himself. But this isn’t so. He should be viewed as another sibling- one who deserves the care and consideration he’s always received.
If you follow this simple program, you should have a pleasant and stress-free transition from couple life to family life. Your goal, of course, is to have your pet love the baby and want to protect it as much as both of you. As long as you are aware of the pet’s needs and provide for them in advance, you should have very little trouble when your infant comes.
Contrary to popularly held belief, children raised in a house with two or more dogs or cats during the first year of life may be less likely to develop allergic diseases as compared with children raised without pets, according to a study in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
In the future issues I’ll walk you through the introduction of a child, an elderly parent and a tenant or house guest to your pet.