When you find out that you're pregnant, it's natural to feel nervous and excited. If you're a pet owner, you may feel more anxious than other expectant parents if you're worried about how your pet will get along with your baby.
Luckily, with a bit of planning, you can help even the most pampered cat or dog make a smooth transition from living in a baby-free household to residing in a home that's focused on a crying, demanding newborn.
“Many dog and cat owners say of their pets, 'This is my first baby,'” says Vicki Mendiratta, MD, professor in the division of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. “Pregnancy is time to reflect that your life is changing, and most pet owners can't focus the same amount of time on a pet when they have to take care of a child.”
A study of nearly 600 dog and cat owners, which was presented at the 2010 meeting of the American Sociological Association, confirms what most people believe to be true: Pet owners who have children spend less time with their pets.
“I learned from my research that close relationships with cats, and especially dogs, change,” says study author David Blouin, PhD, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Indiana University, South Bend. “Many owners simply have less time and money to spend on their pets, but emotional changes often occur, as well. When people have young children, it makes less sense to think of their pets as babies or children, too.”
Here's what you can do to let your pet know that it still has a special place in your family, even though a baby is coming:
Before Baby Comes
Your pet may realize that something is brewing when you begin accumulating baby paraphernalia and rearranging rooms in your home during your pregnancy, so be sensitive to your pet's needs.
“A significant amount of change occurs before the baby is born,” says Ilana Reisner, DVM, PhD, assistant professor of behavioral medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia. “The nursery is prepared. There's new furniture and baby stuff. Nervous cats may react by hiding or even spraying urine. Make sure they have unfettered access to litter boxes, food, water, and their favorite resting places. For dogs, it may be helpful to have a CD of baby noises or exposing them to new baby smells, like lotions.”
Gradually help your pet get used to the idea that a baby is on the way.
“If all these things start changing suddenly, it's going to be very stressful for the pet,” says registered veterinary technician Nancy Peterson, cat programs manager for the Humane Society of the United States, in Washington D.C. “You want the pet to associate good things with the baby.”
Let your pet get familiar with the baby's room while you're still pregnant, if you plan to allow it in your child's bedroom. Cat owners who don't want their pets jumping into baby's crib can train them with an adhesive deterrent product like Sticky Paws, Peterson says. Netting that covers a crib may also be effective.
When a pet won't be admitted to the baby's room, safety gates or screen doors can allow an animal to see and hear what's going on, which makes it feel less isolated.
“Give dogs time to adjust to baby gates, well in advance of the baby arriving,” Reisner says. “It's useful to get dogs used to being separated at times, always in a comfortable place with a food-based toy/puzzle like a Kong - not in a dark basement or cold garage.”
Create a New Normal
You know that you'll have less time to play with your pet after the baby arrives, so why not get the dog or cat used to the idea early?
“Exercise and general daily schedules should be pre-adjusted before baby comes home,” Reisner says. “Cutting back on time spent with an animal can be eased by doing more quality activities.”
While you're pregnant, bring your new baby stroller on outings when you walk the dog. It may even be helpful to place a baby doll in the seat, Mendiratta says.
“I recommend this for women with a toddler or pet,” she says. “A baby doll can be a surrogate for the baby you'll be bringing home. When you put the baby doll in the bassinet, your dog can't go up and lick it. When you go for walks, your dog can recognize that it won't just be the two of you.”
Doggie Day Care
Who will care for your pet when you 're in the hospital delivering your baby and during the first few exhausting days when you return home? Line up someone reliable ahead of time.
“Enlist friends, relatives, even a dog walker, so the dog doesn't feel that the whole routine has been up-ended by this crying baby that gets everyone's attention,” Mendiratta says.
When you have a few spare moments after bringing the baby home, reassure your cat or dog that you still care.
“You'll be exhausted, but you can give your pet 10 minutes of attention when the baby is sleeping,” Mendiratta says. “Snuggle with the cat or play catch with the dog.”
Before bringing your baby into your home for the first time, introduce their scent to your pet.
“Send home a blanket or article of clothing so the pet can investigate it,” Peterson says. “When you come home, let someone else carry the baby, and greet your pet in a calm manner. You could let your pet approach the baby on the couch. If things get too excited, rather than banishing the dog or cat, take the baby away so the pet can calm down.”
Your attitude around your pet is important during this transition period.
“Make every attempt to resume normal life for the pet,” says Alanna Levine, MD, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and pediatrician in private practice in Tappan, N.Y. “If he was allowed on the couch before, continue to allow him up there. And be careful not to discipline your pet every time he comes near the new baby.”
Some dogs find it comforting to spend time in a crate, but this must be an established preference before the baby arrives. Putting the dog in a crate whenever the baby is around can be traumatic and should be avoided, Peterson says.
Supervising Your Pet and Baby's Relationship
Animals are unpredictable, and babies make erratic movements, which may frighten pets. This is why you should always be present when your baby and pet are in the same room.
“An accident might occur if the cat lies down on the newborn's face, so caution is wise,” Reisner says. “Dogs can attack babies, so that's a well-founded fear that should be addressed with supervision or separation, as needed.”
When your baby is old enough to crawl or walk, teach them to stay away from your pet's toys, food bowls, and litter boxes. Child safety gates can keep babies away from litter boxes while still offering cats access to the facilities.
“Things that don't look appetizing to us can be quite appealing to babies and toddlers,” Levine says. “If your child accidentally ingests anything, call Poison Control at 800-222-1222. They'll need to know the type of litter ingested, so have that information on hand.”
Having Another Baby
Even if your pet adjusted well after the birth of your first child, it's helpful to take the same steps every time you're expecting an addition to the family.
“Another baby, whether the second, third, or fourth, is going to be a change in the routine,” Peterson says. “Err on the side of needing to provide some kind of transition.”