baby with house pet dog

Introducing a newborn baby to pets

After Your Baby Arrives

1. Introducing the new baby to your pet

Even after a new baby arrives, pet owners can still help their pets adjust to the baby before exposure. Bringing home a receiving blanket that smells like the baby before actually bringing home the baby is one way to accustom the pet to the newcomer. Let the pet smell the blanket and get used to it before the baby comes home from the hospital.

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The first introduction should be very brief and controlled. The pet should be on a leash if possible. The mother should not be the person holding the infant. She may be weaker than normal and the pet may have missed her during her hospital stay and, therefore, be more likely to jump. Subsequent introductions can last for longer time periods and should depend strongly on how each pet handles the new situation. Due to the unpredictability of most exotic or uncommon pets (such as ferrets, primates, and other exotics), these animals should be introduced to newborns with extreme caution.

2. Being rational and patient under stress

When a new baby enters a household, situations develop that can create stress for everyone in the household, including the pets. If the new parents take a rational approach to these situations, they can help to alleviate some of the stress for themselves and their pets. For example, by planning ahead, new parents can arrange for a family member or neighbor to care for their pets immediately after the baby arrives when the parents may be very emotional. That way the parents can adjust to their new baby without worrying about their animals. This may help everyone remain patient and calm during the baby's introduction to the household.

It's also important to remember that when a pet acts differently or oddly, it is not out of spite for the baby. It may act strangely because it is confused or curious. For example, if a cat or dog urinates in the baby stroller, it is not because it dislikes the baby. It is probably disoriented by the new smells. Pet owners who are new parents need to remain patient with their pets and train their animals using positive reinforcement, such as praise or a treat for good behavior, rather than physical punishment for misbehavior. Punishment can create stress for both the pet and its owner.

Thinking about one's communication style before the baby arrives can also alleviate stress. When talking to a newborn, people typically use "baby talk" -- a higher-pitched, more enunciated way of speaking than their usual voice. Many pet owners use this same communication style with their pets, and it is understandable that many pets feel confused when their owners talk to a new arrival in the same way. Therefore, pet-owning parents need to establish different ways of communicating with their pets versus their children to avoid potential problems.

A baby's illness or discomfort can be another source of stress. Many new parents who are pet owners assume that any skin irritation or problem experienced by their newborn comes from a pet allergy. More often than not, the child's allergic reaction is not to the pet. Before making sudden decisions that may result in a pet's losing its home, parents should consult their child's doctor... and allergy specialists. Very few people are so allergic to a specific animal species that they are unable to tolerate it. Moreover, there may be ways to separate the child and the pet without giving up the pet if allergies do become a problem.

3. Pet and baby will require continuous training

As the baby grows, its parents need to continue to train both their pets and their child to handle new situations. For example, many pets are possessive of their food bowls, and this can prove to be a danger for both the toddler and the pet. Parents should teach their children to avoid pet food containers and teach the pet to be more accepting (while feeding the pet completely away from the baby). This is an important lesson for toddlers to learn for the times when they are away from home as well. Even if a family pet tolerates a child playing in its food area, many animals will not: Children should simply be taught to avoid all pet feeding areas. Parents must always remember that even the best child and the best companion animal can experience behavioral problems. Therefore, pets and very small children should never be left unsupervised. The consequences could be dire for both the child and the pet if something unexpected were to happen.

Babies, pets, and parents can live very happily together. It simply takes a little time and work, both before and after the baby arrives. Everything about bringing home a new infant should be a wonderful experience; it should not result in the abandonment of a loved companion animal.

BACK |PETS AND BABIES, Part 1: « Preparing before your newborn baby arrives

Source: Companion Animals | Pets and Babies, NC Cooperative Extension (AG-649)

Ange, K.D. Companion Animals: Choosing the Right Dog (AG-649). Raleigh, N.C.: NC State University Cooperative Extension Service.
Case, L. 2003. The Cat. Its Behavior, Nutrition, & Health. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2004, Toxoplasmosis.
Hartshorn, J. 2003, July. How baby changes your pet's life. American Baby.

Prepared by
Kimberly Ange, Lecturer in Animal Science, North Carolina State University
The author extends appreciation to the following for their contributions to this publication:
Harold Hintz, Ph.D., Professor, Cornell University;
Eric van Heugten, Ph.D., Associate Professor, North Carolina State University;
and Theo van Kempen, Ph.D., Associate Professor, North Carolina State University.

Images on both pages: istockphoto.

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