Lots of families expecting their first baby already consider their pet their baby. In fact, for more than 20 percent of families having a first baby, the dog or cat came first, according to the American Pet Products Association. Many obstetricians and pediatricians offer concerns—mostly unfounded—about pets being in a home with a newborn or an expectant mom. There are still doctors who tell pregnant women that the cat’s got to go for presumed fear of toxoplasmosis. Luckily, veterinarians can set others straight, based on science. One reality is that if pets don’t respond properly to the baby, there may be no second chance for the pet. It might land in shelter. The good news is that clients can avoid most issues between pets and newborns. You can help prepare families by either offering their own “bringing home baby to a pet” classes, or participating in programs offered at local colleges or hospitals. Creating or participating in a class about babies and pets will involve your veterinary practice in the community and even introduce you to new clients. This can result in a small revenue stream, and most of all, save pets’ lives. Here are some tips:
- It’s best if the client acclimates the pet to babies well before the stork arrives. They should ask friends or relatives to visit their pet with newborns and rambunctious two-year-olds in tow, and clients should keep dogs on a leash. As for the visiting toddler, it’s imperative the visit be fun. Don’t force the pet to interact. A cautious pet is normal if the pet has not been previously exposed to young people. If the pet is fearful, it may take several visits to warm up.
- If the pet offers even a hint of aggression, the good news is that now is the time to nip the problem in the bud—before baby comes home. Offer the client a referral to a qualified dog trainer, dog behavior consultant, or veterinary behaviorist.
- Instruct clients to download the sound of a crying child from the Internet. They can play the sound of the bawling baby at a very soft level below the threshold that affects the pet as it enjoys dinner several rooms away. Ever so gradually over time, they should pump up the volume and move the food closer to the speakers so eventually the pet associates the crying with dinner.
- Tell your clients to become their favorite actor. Ask them to periodically speak baby talk to a doll. This conditions pets to your “baby tone,” as well as the attention going elsewhere.
- Some suggest keeping pets out of the baby’s nursery, even as clients prepare for the baby’s arrival. This only serves to enhance the pet’s anxiety or curiosity, and potentially creates a problem where there was none.
You don’t want to deal with treating an obstruction (or grossed out clients), so tell them to create a dog-proof place to store dirty diapers, a favorite snack for some not so discriminating dogs. Don’t wait until the baby arrives to relocate the dog’s favorite bed or the cat’s litter box.
If there’s an opportunity, bringing in the baby’s blanket home hours or days before the actual baby is an introduction nearly as effective as face to paw. Once the baby’s odor is awash in a blanket, don’t wash it. Place it 10-feet from the pet’s food dish, and gradually inch it closer over the next 48 hours. As the pet enjoys a delicious meal, the association will be made with the baby’s smell.
When the baby fusses, clients can toss some kibble or treats into the air. The trick is to make it seem as if the baby is presenting the goodies. The goal is for pets that get agitated by the sound of crying baby to now associate that fussing with something enjoyable. In some cases, even the best treats won’t convince a pet that a wailing baby isn’t terrifying. That’s not as bad as it sounds, at least not now. What is really bad is to learn this when the baby is actually home. Knowing in advance of the real arrival allows for the time to readjust the pet’s attitude with desensitization and counter-conditioning.
It helps to have control of the pet when the baby arrives; clients should have at least the basics of dog training down. Of course, this is a good idea under any circumstances.
Pheromone products, such as D.A.P. and Feliway can soothe tense nerves. Also, consider Anxitane, chewable tablets containing L-Theanine or Suntheanine, an amino acid indicated for use in cats and dogs to help keep them calm and relaxed.
Your job as the veterinarian is to be pre-emptive and explain old wives tales. For example, giving up cats for fears of toxoplasmosis is unwarranted, and if a medical professional has questions he or she should contact you. Toxoplasmosis concerns are real, but when clients understand how it’s transmitted and they are offered common sense precautions, they are unlikely want to give up their cat. Here are some more tips:
- Cats do not suffocate babies. They may want to lick messy faces, though.
- Domestic ferrets do not hunt down and injure infants. Ferrets, like all pets, should never, ever be left alone with newborns or young children.
- Parasite control is always important, but even more of an issue with infants and young children.
- No one knows for sure if pets actually get jealous, but they may learn to resent the attention the baby is receiving. Suggest clients maintain as much of the pet’s usual routine as possible. So, if Fluffy was typically brushed or Fido was taken for a walk at 7 p.m., attempt to continue those routines.
- Another great resource is a free PDF from the American Humane Association that you can download here.