Even if you’re not the type to throw your pet a birthday party (although I hear they are quite fun to attend), if you don’t have a child, your pet is basically the little kid in your life. You keep them on a schedule. You feed them; you potty train them; you teach them manners. You (maybe) put cute bow ties on them. You lavish kisses on them. When you have a baby, though, everything changes for you and for them. When you know you’re expecting, here are some tips to help prepare your pet:
1. Train now for the behaviors you want in your pet.
Enroll your pet in an obedience course if they haven’t been trained already. Besides the basic sit, stay, come, and the ever-important combo of leave and drop it, you should also make sure that your pet greets with you without immediately jumping up on you in excitement. After all, in the coming months, you’ll be holding a baby in your arms.
One command that is less popular but quite useful is “go away,” “back up,” or the more specific “go to place” (accompanied by either a finger point or a specific pet bed). That way, your pet can either leave a situation or have a designated spot to wait while you do tasks with the baby. If you want to get fancy, you can train your dog to do behaviors such as lying down near you while you’re nursing or in the baby’s room.
As with most training programs now, positive reinforcement and redirection is recommended: You don’t want your pet to associate anything negative with the baby.
2. Get your house ready for the baby gradually.
When you think about all of the ways your life will change with your newborn, remember that it’s the same for your pet—except it’s freakier for them because they don’t understand what’s about to happen. Create home changes little by little, day by day. Instead of making the nursery overnight, bring in the furniture and set it up one at a time. If you start bringing in some of the baby’s toys and your pet goes after them, make sure to redirect them to their own toys.
Start putting up safety gates or barriers now, and if you’re moving your pet to a different sleeping area, do so now (with lots of treats to aid in the transition). Regarding the nursery, some people recommend barring your pet from the room completely at first, and then, when you think they can handle it when the baby is home, letting them in little by little (and always under supervision). If you do opt for allowing your animals into the nursery, make sure to create firm “no pet” zones, like the crib and the changing table.
If your pet doesn’t have a safe place to relax (or escape a loud baby), create one, preferably near its food and water. For dogs, that can be their crate with their favorite blanket and toys or a dog bed in a quieter room. With cats, you can also try getting them a cat perch so they can be aloof from all of the action.
A special note for cats:
To help make sure cats don’t climb on the changing table or the crib, placing cardboard covered in double-sided tape on those surfaces can deter them. (When the baby does lie in the crib, adding a temporary screen or tent above it can stop the cat from climbing in or urinating on it.) Also, if you are moving the litter box from one room to another, move it only a few inches each day, covering up the old litter box spot with furniture if need be.
3. Make sure your pet is up-to-date on vaccinations and that its flea or tick guard isn’t harmful to young ones.
A special note for cats:
Toxoplasmosis is a parasite that, while very rare in indoor cats, can be transferred through infected feces or soil to humans and fetuses. To make sure you don’t contract it, wear gloves and a mask while cleaning litter boxes (or have someone else do it), and clean out the litter two times per day and wash your hands afterward. (Toxoplasma doesn’t become infectious until one to five days after it leaves the cat.) You should also wear gloves while gardening or working with raw vegetables, fruits, and meat. Do not eat undercooked meat or feed undercooked meat to your cat.
4. Expose your pet to babies and children.
Most likely, your pet hasn’t been around many infants or children. Especially if you have a dog, start by bringing it to places like parks where it’ll get to hear, smell, and see young ones and all of their chaotic cuteness. If you’re able to introduce your pet to friends with a baby, start with a far away introduction and get closer. If your pet does begin to act stressed, remove your pet to another room, wait until a few days have passed, and start again at a farther distance.
As always, with your future child or with anyone else’s, never leave your pet unsupervised with babies and toddlers.
To get your animal used to how babies sound, play a recording with baby noises, especially crying, while feeding your pet treats. Start the recordings low and make them louder as your pet gets more comfortable. To help your pet get used to how a baby might interact with them, frequently touch places that the baby might try to pet, such as paws, ears, tail, and mouth.
5. Act as if the baby is already there.
While it might sound silly, animal behaviorists recommend using a doll to initiate change in routines. That means petting your dog or cat while pretending to hold the baby or nursing, or going for a walk with your pet and a stroller. Even if your four-legged friend realizes it’s a doll, its initial reaction can help you see how they’ll react to the real baby. If nothing else, it’ll help you realize what acts might be easier or more difficult.
If your pet is on a schedule, anticipate how that schedule might change when you have a baby who keeps odd hours. Consider randomizing your pet’s food and bathroom schedule a little more (not too much of course, but just enough so they’re not on you for food and a walk the moment you walk in the door after work). You can also consider buying an automatic feeder so you have one less thing to worry about.
Also, don’t forget to plan (and have backups for) how your pets will be taken care of while you’re at the hospital.
6. Keep the introductions gradual and the boundaries immediate.
When the baby is born, have someone bring home a used baby blanket from the hospital and let your pet smell it. (Don’t let your animal take the blanket—keep it firmly in your hand and show that it’s yours and that it should be treated well.) That way, when you do bring the baby home, the smell won’t be new.
Coming home from the hospital, Moms, if your pet hasn’t seen you for a few days, greet them when you aren’t holding the baby so they can let all of their excitement and happiness at seeing you. Then, similar to exposing your pets to children and infants for the first time, have your pet’s first meeting with your baby be from a distance with them on a leash. Once the pet is calm, then you can allow them to approach closer. As for your baby, right from the get go, model how to interact with your pet, correcting them when they look like they’re about to grab or annoy the animal.
And remember: Even if things aren’t idyllic the first time you introduce your baby to your pet, know that things will calm down.