Introducing a baby into your life is an exciting and, sometimes daunting, time for everyone. There are new experiences around every corner and people often say that you’re never entirely prepared for the way your life will change when your family grows. For your pets it can be a confusing, or even frightening, time. The barrage of new sounds, sights and smells can be confusing for them, especially if they are older and accustomed to being the centre of attention. The introduction may not be entirely seamless but with a bit of preparation you can try and make it as smooth as possible.
Long before the baby arrives you need to ensure that your pet knows how to behave. If you have a dog then they should understand and respond to basic commands consistently so that you can be confident that you have control. Older dogs will usually have learned these commands a long time ago but it doesn’t hurt to do a little bit of practice to make sure they are remembering their manners. If you’re a cat owner then you’ll want to be sure that your cat’s litter training is still as good as possible to try and help prevent any issues with hygiene. It may also be wise to move the litter tray from the floor to a higher place, out of the way of the baby but still easily accessible to the cat.
While your instinct might be to spend more time with your pet as the arrival date approaches this is just setting them up to feel more confused when your attention is split between your pet and your new baby. It is better not to start being more affectionate only to have to give them less time and attention once the baby comes. Instead try to work out how much one-on-one time you’ll be able to dedicate to your pet and slowly change your routine to reflect this so that their habits won’t have to change too quickly. Their routine is likely to be more embedded so slow, gradual changes should make it easier for everyone in the long run.
Decide whether your pet will have access to the baby’s room and, once you’ve made the decision, commit to it as the preparation required will vary. Whether you plan to allow your pet into the baby’s room or not, a baby gate on the door will be a good idea. If you have a dog a standard-height gate will probably do the trick but if you have a cat (or a dog who is prone to jumping) an extra-tall one might be needed. This means that you can keep your baby separate when it’s sleeping and you’re not there to supervise; never leave your pet alone with your baby. Unfortunately tragedies happen and it’s not worth the risk.
If you decide to let your pet into the baby’s room then you need to set some boundaries before the baby is even in it. The cot, for instance, should be off-limits; between the teeth, claws, fur and saliva it is best to keep your pet out of your baby’s bed. To ingrain the idea that the cot isn’t for them, try stacking something noisy like trays of corks or boxes of marbles on the edge of the cot. That way, if your dog sticks their nose between the bars or your cat tries to leap into it, they will be startled by the noise and less likely to try it again. If they are persistent then sit in the room with them and, if they go towards the cot, give them a squirt with a water bottle. If they absolutely won’t leave the cot alone then invest in a cat-net that will keep them out.
Make strategic decisions about the layout of the baby’s room if a pet will be allowed into it. A very important measure to take is where the nappy bin will go as dogs have been known to make a dreadful mess if they can knock over a bin of dirty nappies. A nappy bin with a tight lid and a heavy base should help keep curious noses out.
If there’s space then give your pet their own place in the room. A small cat bed or dog mattress will make them feel secure and welcome, as well as distracting them from the baby’s cot. Keep a box of treats handy and throw a few into the pet bed to encourage them to use it, and continue to do this once the baby has arrived. This positive association should also help your pet to get used to all of the other new stimuli they’ll encounter in the baby’s room.
If the baby’s room will be a pet-free zone then place a bed outside the room and try the treat-in-the-bed trick. This will give your pet a place to be which is near the baby but outside the room. This will let them familiarise themselves with the sight, smell and sound of the baby.
Before you bring the baby home it is best to give the pet something with the baby’s scent so they can familiarise themselves with it in a non-threatening way. A muslin or a hat would work perfectly. If you have a dog, get them to sit and then allow them to approach to sniff the item. This way you can instil the idea of a slow and calm approach to this smell.
Bringing the baby home is a very exciting experience for the parent(s) and there are a lot of things to manage so it’s best to decide well in advance how to handle it. It will be easier to orchestrate first introductions with plenty of prior planning in place. Making sure your dog is calm (by taking them for a long walk) will help keep them under control. If possible it would be a good idea to get the baby through the door while the dog is out so that you’re not greeted by a bouncy dog while you have the baby in your arms.
Make sure you arm yourself with plenty of treats so you can reward any good behaviour. This will be easier to do with two people. Firstly, with the baby safely in the room and with the baby gate securely shut, greet your dog. Then let them have a good sniff about, without letting them see the baby yet. Reward them if they are curious but calm, and practice a few commands while they explore the new scents in the house. Then put your dog on the lead, just in case. Once you’re confident your dog is under control and calm, bring the baby to them. Let the dog see the baby from a distance and instruct them to sit and stay, rewarding them if they do. Try not to scold or reprimand the dog during this process as they may start to associate the baby with being told off. Slowly approach the dog with the baby until they are close, making sure you have a very tight rein in case of an unanticipated lunge. Do this several times until you are confident that your dog is safe around the baby. Of course, it is vital to assess the dog’s reaction to the baby and, if you’re at all concerned, stop the process and remove the baby from the situation to try again later.
Unless your cat is a house cat it may be slightly harder to control when they first encounter the baby. As long as the baby is either safely separated or supervised you should be able to ensure that you are there the first time your baby and cat meet each other. Putting your baby in a Moses basket with a cat-proof net over it should ensure that your cat can have a look without being able to paw at (or, worse, scratch or bite) the baby. As a general rule cats tend to be less interested in babies than dogs, but there are exceptions to this. Vigilance is key.
Your pet should be allowed to more or less go about their business as usual. If your baby is being particularly animated or noisy it might be wise to keep your pet at bay in case they are startled and snap as a result. Even old dogs (and cats) can learn new tricks and, while they might find it harder to adapt to a new arrival, they should eventually get used to the baby pretty quickly. Gentle reminders like getting your dog to sit and stay while you’re changing nappies and throwing them a treat for good behaviour should make everything easier; even a senior dog will usually toe the line for a gravy bone!
Ultimately you can never be sure how an animal will react to a situation and all the preparation in the world doesn’t guarantee a preferred outcome. Being overcautious will always be better than misjudging, rushing and resulting in an accident. If you have any doubts or concerns speak to your vet or a behaviourist, and never leave a baby or small child unsupervised with a pet, under any circumstances.