A New Baby

And Baby Makes Four

The last thing Marilyn thought she’d be thinking about at her first Lamaze class was her pets.
But when 3 out of 20 couples told her they planned to “get rid of” their pets before their babies were born, Marilyn was amazed.

Young children can happily co-exist with dogs and cats.

“It had never crossed my mind to give up my cats because I was having a baby,” says Marilyn, a first-time mother and owner of two cats.

When her classmates shared their fears — that the family cat would smother the new arrival or the dog would inevitably bite their infant child — Marilyn decided to step in and offer some advice.

Knowing a little bit about animal behavior, undertaking responsible pet care from the beginning, and taking precautions and providing supervision can help parents short-circuit potential problems before they begin, she told them. Too often, though, this message doesn’t get out.

At the MSPCA’s Boston shelter, for instance, the records of 75 pets surrendered in a six-month period cited child-related reasons, even though none of these pets had actually injured a child.

“Pets are rarely brought to our shelter because they have harmed children,” says the shelter manager. “It’s usually because parents feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of having to care for both a pet and a baby. Or else, it’s because of misconceptions.”

With just a little extra effort, however, pet owners and expectant parents can take steps to ease the way. The effort is well worthwhile.

Children reap deep benefits from growing up with a pet. Animals give unconditional love and are loyal companions, both of which help promote self-esteem and a sense of security. They provide stability during periods of change, such as a move to another location or a divorce. And, under the supervision of a parent, children learn responsibility through chores such as feeding, grooming and walking pets. Marilyn noticed an improvement in her infant’s motor coordination as he crawled in pursuit of their cats. The pets, which gain another playmate, can benefit, too.

Just as couples prepare for their baby’s arrival by taking childbirth classes and by practicing their diapering, holding and feeding skills with a friend’s baby, there are ways to help a pet prepare for the new family member.

“One of the most important things,” stresses veterinarian and animal-behavior specialist Amy Marder, “is to be sure that your dog knows and obeys commands.” Ideally, obedience training began as soon as you got your dog; but, if not, start now. Also, don’t wait until a baby is on the way to socialize your pets. Whenever possible, give your pet the opportunity to be around other people’s babies and children.

Before the baby leaves the hospital, bring home an infant cap the baby has worn, diapers and baby products to get your dog or cat used to the new scents it will be experiencing. Some behaviorists suggest role playing with your pet by handling a doll and playing a tape recording of a baby crying.

Teach your pets in advance which areas are off-limits. Marilyn set up the bassinets a few months before her baby was born and trained her cats to stay out of it by placing books inside to make it less comfortable and scolding and removing the cats whenever they jumped in.

Upon returning home from the hospital, give your pet a warm greeting. Let your pet sniff the baby, watching carefully. Supervision is extremely important. Physician and veterinarian Leonard C. Marcus stresses, “Dogs and babies should never be left alone together.” People often make the mistake of paying attention to their pet only while the baby is sleeping, but offering praise and affection in the presence of the baby may quicken the pet’s acceptance of the newcomer.

During those first hectic days, try to keep your pet’s feeding and walking schedule the same. The fewer changes that occur, the happier your pet is likely to be.

One fear of new parents is that their children may catch a disease from their pets. Children are more vulnerable to animal-passed diseases, or zoonoses, because of their less rigorous sanitary habits. Transmission of the most common diseases, such as salmonella, occurs via the mouth. Once old enough, children should be taught not to handle animal food or feces and to wash their hands after contact with animals, especially before eating. Dogs should be dewormed and the child’s play area kept clear of feces. Keep your pet flea and tick free, and make sure all the pet’s vaccinations are up-to-date.

Behavior problems are the other major worry for parents. Most pets readily accept infants, but aggressive behavior does occasionally occur. When it does, it most often happens once the child has begun to crawl or walk and may chase after the pet and pull its tail or fur.

Fear-induced aggression in dogs and cats occurs when a child frightens or harms the pet and it growls, hisses or bites in self-defense. “Pets feel pain just as much as we do and when pinched by a toddler’s hand it hurts,” says Marcus. “Supervision is just as important to make sure that your pet does not get hurt by your toddler as it is to make sure your pet does not injure your son or daughter.”

To prevent fear-induced aggression, parents should counteract an infant’s natural tendency to grab and pull by teaching their children right away to pet gently with an open hand. Also, provide the pet with a crate or another area in the home where it can eat, rest and sleep undisturbed.

The companionship of a pet offers children an extra measure of stability and confidence.

Another reason dogs may display aggressive behavior toward young children has to do with the dominance hierarchy canines naturally relate to. Usually, dogs accept people as the dominant “pack” members. Sometimes, however, a dog may view a small child as a subordinate and snap and growl as it would to an uppity puppy. This can occur when the child approaches the pet’s food dish, disturbs the pet while sleeping, assumes a preferred position, such as on a parent’s lap, or stares directly at the dog.

As the child grows, the dog usually begins to view the youngster as dominant, and the aggressive behavior ceases. Until that time, a combination of supervision and separation may be necessary.

Occasionally, a dog may mistake a baby for prey. Small babies don’t act, smell, or sound like adult humans, which may confuse a dog. When babies cry, they sound like small animals in distress. Although tragic incidents of babies being attacked by dogs do occur, they are extremely rare and can be prevented by simply never leaving a baby and a dog alone together. Under close supervision, let your dog become familiar with the baby to lessen the likelihood of the infant being mistaken for prey. Also, youngsters should be taught not to approach strange dogs.

Playful aggression occurs when an over exuberant dog unintentionally harms a child during a romp. “This play aggression is often accompanied by growling and barking but sounds different from serious aggression, such as what your dog might display when the mailman comes to the door. Dogs that are playing often assume a bowing posture ad rarely break the skin when mouthing,” explains Marcus.

Just how old a child should be before being allowed to play with a dog or cat without adult direction varies, depending on both child and pet. To prevent canine play aggression from getting out of hand, children should first be taught to stop playing and not to run away if the dog becomes too excited. A child should not try to punish a dog by pushing the pet away or hitting it. The dog may perceive this to be part of the game. If the child stands very still with eyes closed and arms folded, the dog will eventually calm down.

Young cats may also display aggression. They enjoy stalking, chasing and pouncing on objects including people. Giving the cat an appropriate outlet for its energies may well solve the problem. Marcus recommends another cat as a playmate. If this is not possible, giving the cat fun toys such as Ping-Pong balls and punishing the cat for inappropriate play with a squirt bottle or loud noise often works.

If you have a pet problem you feel unable to deal with on your own, contact your veterinarian. If the veterinarian cannot help, ask for a recommendation to an animal behaviorist.

Veterinarian and animal-behavior specialist Stefanie Schwartz says that in the majority of cases, a behaviorist can help. This was certainly the case for the Richardson family and their 5-year-old cocker spaniel, Tito. Once Billy Richardson became a toddler, Tito began doing naughty things to get noticed. He stole the child’s toys and constantly barked to be let in and out of the house.

“While I was there, Tito was frantically running around to get attention,” says Schwartz. “The owners were constantly occupied with their active, noisy, undisciplined toddler, Billy. They were even ignoring me.”

Obvious as it seemed, the parents had to be shown that Tito needed more attention. Once he began getting it, Tito’s behavior problem ceased. The last time Billy’s mother called Schwartz she said, “Tito is an angel. Now can you help me with Billy?”