SPCA New Zealand

Preparing your pets for a new baby’s arrival

16 August 2022

Veterinary behaviourist and resident Animals’ Voice columnist Dr Jess Beer gives us her tried and tested tips on how to prepare your pets for a baby joining the family.

Preparing your pets for a new baby’s arrival

As you prepare for big changes in your life, remember all the joys that having a pet can bring to your family.

There are proven benefits to raising children with pets.

Pets provide companionship, teach children how to be nurturing and caring, and there are health benefits such as lower levels of obesity, allergies and anxiety in children raised with pets.

Picture the future of your family with safe and happy children and pets. Starting that relationship right and valuing what your pet needs before the arrival of a baby is an important part of a long and happy relationship.

Get a vet check before baby arrives

Preparing to avoid nasty surprises also means addressing your pet’s health concerns before your baby arrives. This means ensuring your pets are up to date with their vaccinations, flea treatment, worming treatment, and medication for any other health conditions that may be ongoing.

I encourage all parents-to-be to book a vet check to cover all these concerns before the baby arrives. This will avoid any unnecessary urgent trips to the vet to get medication or food that has run out, or suddenly realising their vaccinations have lapsed and you need to get them in to a boarding facility. This is not easy to juggle when you simply want to be home and focusing on your newborn.

Up-to-date worming is especially important as there are internal parasites such as roundworms that can be passed to humans, and young babies and children would be especially vulnerable.

This is easy to avoid with regular worming treatment of your pets. Some of the topical combined flea and worm products are the easiest option for cats who resent worming tablets. This vet check is the perfect opportunity to ensure there are no underlying painful conditions that need to be addressed.

If you’re worried about your pet’s anxiety with the upcoming changes in their home, take the opportunity to talk to your veterinarian about Feliway or Adaptil pheromones.

These are species-specific pheromones that work on your pet’s brain to increase feelings of contentment.This is particularly important as pets with painful conditions are more likely to be stressed or even aggressive, which can be a dangerous mix with babies in the house.

Invest time in training

Before your new baby arrives, it’s a good idea to refresh your training with your dog – and to work on some unwanted behaviours that could become problematic with a newborn in the house.

For example, does your dog jump up to greet you when you get home? This could be unsafe if you are arriving home with a precious baby in your arms. Or does your dog pull on the leash when they are being walked? Walking your dog alongside your pram is great, but only possible if your dog has good leash manners. I suggest training your dog to walk next to the pram at least a month before your baby arrives.

The more practice you have, the easier it will be when you have to walk both baby and dog. If you have a pet who is used to always being on the couch with you, now is the time to teach them a good response to getting off the couch when asked politely and having a comfy place to settle instead.

Seek out a qualified, positive dog trainer who will give you some practical tips and your dog the manners they need. The key is starting that training now, not after your baby has arrived and everyone is a bit tired.

Setting up space

When preparing for your baby, there is a lot of thought that goes into preparing your home. But it can be just as important to ensure the environment is set up to keep your cats and dogs happy and safe too.

One of the main concerns pets have when a baby arrives is the sudden change to where they are allowed to be. If your cat loves to sleep in the sunroom, or your dog naps in the guest room, and suddenly those areas are off-limits, it can be very distressing. So a few months before the baby arrives, plan which areas your pets will and won’t have access to. At the same time you need to be sure there is a safe and happy place where these pets can go to when they need to be separated for baby feeding or bathing time. This can also be somewhere they can choose to hide away if the crying gets too much! Pet pens that separate a corner of the room, or a large crate for your dog with their bed, along with some toys and treats, is a good idea. The alternative later on is to have a pen for the baby, where the dog is not allowed, giving you and bubs floor space for changing nappies, tummy time and games.

Providing treats and feeding your cats up high will give them a sense of calm in a place away from the baby-related activities. Ensuring they still have a comfortable and secure place will minimise the chance they move out of home altogether!

In my house the pet-specific places are mostly set up in the living area away from the bedroom and the nursery. My three cats need their own places and don’t want to compete with each other for a nice safe place away from the baby. Intermittent food rewards are given to the cats when they choose to settle in either of the two cat trees or the beds. I have also put a food bowl on the cat wall perches.

One thing many people forget is to introduce the pets to any new baby furniture in the house – allow them to sniff, explore and recognise it as part of the home.

Fear of new objects, like a cot, rocking chair or even chest of drawers, can lead to scratching, chewing or urinating on the furniture. Just remember that if you don’t want your pets in or on the baby’s furniture, after the introduction you need to dissuade them and prevent access to the new items.

Getting used to a noisy house

If your pets have been living in a quiet home, the noise of a newborn can quickly be overwhelming.

In my pregnancy I did some training to desensitise my dog and cats to baby sounds and movements. I followed a training programme involving sessions where I played baby sounds and moved around the room. This behaviour ensured the cats would be happy on their beds and cat trees in the same room.

This is simple counterconditioning, where you pair the scary baby sounds with a positive emotive state. However, I recommend anyone interested in introducing baby sounds to follow a behaviour plan where you continue to assess your pets’ responses to the sounds. Simply playing a YouTube clip of a baby crying to your pets won’t work – and could make things worse!

Adjusting your dog’s activity requirements

With a newborn it is entirely likely you may not have the time you used to have to invest in exercise and entertainment for your pet. Obviously we must strive to provide the best level of enrichment for our pets to ensure their mental and physical wellbeing, but let’s be realistic with our plans!

A few months before your baby arrives, start decreasing the level and intensity of physical activity. You could consider replacing some of those long walks with easier at-home training, or enrichment and puzzle toys. As you sit at home waiting for the big day, do some research into enrichment ideas that will be easy to incorporate at home. Puzzles and brain games will keep your dog amused and stimulated as you lounge around the house in your PJs while nursing a hungry baby. If your dog is really energetic, consider other options for exercise.

Just be sure to thoroughly check them out and ensure they have qualified staff with appropriate canine care. Be aware that most day-cares have a trial day to ensure your pet is suited to their environment and may not be able to book your dog in at short notice, so organise this before your baby arrives.

The first introduction

Bringing your baby home for the first time is so exciting for your family – and a couple of easy steps can make it a pleasant experience for your pets too. Before you bring your baby home from the hospital, have your partner or friend take home something with the baby’s scent (such as a blanket) for your pet to investigate.

When you return from the hospital, your pet may be eager to greet you and receive your attention. Have someone else take the baby into another room while you give your pet a warm, but calm, welcome. Keep some treats handy so you can distract your pet, and reward them with treats for appropriate behaviour.

Remember to supervise every interaction between your pet and baby, and never allow face-to-face contact. It’s also a good idea to improve your understanding of canine body language so you don’t misinterpret dog behaviour. Too many people think dogs are happy with the baby, but in fact they are showing signs of stress and anxiety, such as lip licking, panting or a tense face and ears. Dr Sophia Yin has a handy chart showing body language of fear in dogs – this is a great resource to read.

Five good ideas for those first few weeks

  1. Ask someone to take your dog out for a long adventure walk, at least once a week. This gives your dog a good run around to burn off their energy and enjoy time outside, and gives you a break to focus on your baby for a few hours.
  2. Have plenty of food for yourself and your pets stored in the house to allow easy in-house enrichment for them and nutritious readymade meals for you.
  3. Spend 5–10 minutes cuddling your cat each day. They appreciate your attention and it is a good way to calm yourself if struggling with the demands of a baby.
  4. Invest in a baby wrap or sling to allow you to move around the house and interact with your pets with free hands, making it easy to toss treats and hand out toys to them without balancing a baby.
  5. Play music and audio books for everyone to relax to every day. Bonus extra – make sure you have a secure covered bin for those dirty nappies to keep nosy noses out of those discarded poops!
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