How to Help Your Pet Bond With Baby
Welcoming a new addition to the family is an exciting (and nerve-racking) time. While you can’t wait to bring baby home, you’ll want to make sure everyone, and everything, is ready for your little one’s arrival. That means prepping both your pet and your physical space for the transition. We asked an expert on animal behavior for her top dos and dont’s for introducing baby to the family pet in a way that keeps both feeling happy and safe.
Yes, you already have a ton to take care of before baby comes home—from organizing the nursery to assembling a cute wardrobe—but it’s equally important to prep your pet for the new arrival. You shouldn’t assume your furry friend will automatically adore baby; while most pets are pretty adaptable, it’s up to you to be proactive about the introduction.
Start familiarizing pets with the elements that an infant requires as soon as possible, suggests Suzanne Hetts, PhD, a certified animal behaviorist and co-founder of PreparingFido.com, a program that helps pets adjust to a new baby. Let your pet sniff new furniture and supplies so it can get used to unfamiliar scents. You’ll also want to acquaint them with the sounds and changes in behavior that come when a baby does. That includes carrying around and talking to a baby doll (yes, really!) and playing a recording of a crying newborn. “Expose your pet to those ahead of time in graduated steps, making sure every time that exposure happens, good things (like receiving a treat) happen,” Hetts says.
The most common reaction from pets is curiosity: They want to know about this new creature in their house. Let your cat or dog welcome baby with a little sniff, and you’ll find they are simply able to go about their day afterward.
Just remember to show your pet some extra love. “When a dog or cat is competing with a baby for attention, we see an increase in pestering behavior,” Hetts says. “People say that their pet is acting out, but really the dog or cat is just trying to get its needs met. Now that they have to share attention, they’ll try harder to get the attention directed back.” Play fetch in the backyard or nearby park, engage in a tug game after the baby’s gone down for a nap or go for a walk—anything to help you and your fur baby enjoy a little quality time.
If you encounter a more problematic reaction from your pet, it’s usually coming from a place of fear, according to Hetts, and doesn’t occur until baby begins to crawl and invade the pet’s space. Your pet needs a safe area to escape from all the new changes; somewhere baby can’t get to works especially well. “Cats are pretty good at making their own areas; they can jump up high and get above the fray. Dogs can’t do that,” Hetts says. She suggests putting a pet bed at the top of a flight of stairs, or positioning a crate so that baby can’t access it, but your pet can come and go as it pleases.
If you’re worried your dog or cat might have a negative reaction when you bring baby home, don’t feel pressured to introduce them the first day. If you have a doggy day care where your dog is comfortable going, you may want to leave them there while you take a little time to get acclimated with baby. You could also ask a friend or family member to put up your pup or cat for a night or two until you feel ready for their first meet-and-greet.
Whether baby sleeps in a nursery or in your room, you don’t automatically have to restrict your pet from entering. “The more areas that pets are banished from, the more interesting those areas become to them,” Hetts says. Let your pet go into baby’s nursery and explore, and the novelty will quickly wear off. Is Fluffy used to curling up at your feet when it’s time to call it a night? They don’t necessarily have to leave the room—as long as you provide them with a designated area for sleeping. “Start teaching your pet that when you ask them to get off your bed and go lie on their own bed, they’ll get a treat or something else that they really like in return,” Hetts says. That way, you’re not excluding your pet from important family time.
Even if it seems like your pet is putting up with everything baby does, don’t assume the two are just playing. Hetts cautions that any type of teasing behavior from baby (particularly ear- or hair-pulling) could lead to an adverse reaction in the future. “Just because an animal will tolerate something doesn’t mean they enjoy it or that they’re comfortable with it,” she says. “Dogs can reach a threshold when they’ve had enough and that’s when they start snapping.” In that case, you’re confronted with a bigger issue than if you had monitored baby and pet’s interactions from the get-go. Keep a close eye on how things are progressing, intervene if necessary and teach baby that the pet isn’t a toy and should be treated with care.
It may be tempting to get a pet soon after baby comes home so they can begin bonding at a young age, but try to be patient. Hetts cautions parents about doing too much, too soon. “To have another new critter in the house that also needs training and attention and love and care can be a setup for disaster.” In other words, get your routine down as a parent first before you take home that adorable pup.
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