Author: Alison Johnson
Newborn babies have a way of taking over a house - fast. Rooms get rearranged, equipment piles up and new sounds and smells fill the hallways, from crying and cooing to dirty diapers and spit-up milk.
For a family pet, all of the changes can be overwhelming and stressful, triggering negative reactions such as barking, chewing or scratching. Luckily, parents-to-be can do a lot in advance to prepare a dog or cat for being, in a sense, a happy older "sibling" to a new arrival, according to experts on animal behavior.
"It's all in the preparation," says Dan Stallings, owner and head trainer at Thee Dog House in Virginia Beach, which offers dog training, boarding and grooming. "Too many last-minute changes can be shocking and scary. A pet should be part of getting ready for the baby, too."
Much can be done months before a due date, says Stallings, himself the father of a 3-year-old girl and owner of 17 rescue dogs (most stay at his business on any given night). That includes setting up the nursery, bringing in gear such as strollers, swings and highchairs and taking care of problem behaviors - jumping up on people, for example, or not walking well on leash - with an obedience class. "To me, basic training is a must for a dog that will be around children," Stallings says.
Expectant parents can take a dog for walks alongside an empty stroller, turn on battery-powered swings and teach dogs not to grab food off highchair trays. If pets won't be allowed in a particular room or area after a baby's birth, establish that in advance by installing baby gates or quickly removing animals with a firm "no" once they go inside or try to grab a toy meant for a baby.
"If you wait until right when the baby comes home, the pet just won't understand," says Michelle Williams, director of donor and community relations at the Norfolk SPCA. "You want to do anything you can to reduce stress and make it a positive experience."
If parents-to-be have friends with a baby, invite that family over so a pet becomes familiar with its noises; if not, they can play a CD with baby sounds, Williams says. Introducing a swaddled doll also can help animals get comfortable with a newborn's appearance.
"If they're used to you carrying something around or having something in your lap, it shouldn't be a big deal when it's the real thing," Williams says. Once a baby is born but still in the hospital, she adds, bring home a blanket or cap that he or she has worn so pets can get familiar with the scent.
First encounters with babies and baby gear should be fun for pets, says Mieshelle Nagelschneider, a cat behaviorist who runs a clinic in Portland, Oregon. While dogs love treats or extra petting, play is ideal for cats, Nagelschneider says.
"To help your cat associate the new baby stimuli with something pleasant, maneuver a wanded toy for your cat to play with while baby stimuli is present," she says. "Cats can not feel fear while they're playing because these mood and emotional states are independently controlled. Your cat will begin to connect the dots: baby cries equals a non-scary event."
Before a baby comes home, she recommends stocking up on feather wands and battery-operated cat toys (Undercover Mouse or Panic Mouse 360 are two popular ones) to help cats relieve stress, which can cause problem behaviors such as vomiting, elimination outside the litter box, biting and clawing at furniture. The battery toys, she notes, "won't take any time on your part. This is very helpful when you literally have your hands full doing other things!"
For dogs, setting up a crate as a safe, kid-free zone can reduce anxiety, as long as the pet doesn't have to stay inside for more than about two hours at a time, Stallings says. Owners can put treats and toys in the crate to make it appealing. "Many dogs use it as a refuge, as somewhere they can go when they need a break from a child," he says.
Williams advises expectant parents to spay or neuter pets in advance of a birth, which makes most animals - especially cats - calmer and less likely to scratch or bite. Owners also should take care of needed vaccinations and grooming before they're busy with a baby.
Speaking of busy, transitioning pets that have been the center of attention into a more secondary role can be smart - for example, gradually weaning them off constant lap status. But Stallings cautions that owners can't ever ignore an animal, either during or after a pregnancy.
"Obviously, priorities will change with a baby, but a pet still needs exercise and attention, and maybe a few extra toys during the transition period," he says. "You made a commitment to that pet. People give up their dogs much too easily."
Happily, most dogs and cats adjust just fine, experts say. Parents then need to be ready to teach their kids how to treat animals - no ear or tail pulling, for example, and staying out of their crates or food bowls - and to supervise pets and young children closely whenever they're together.
"You shouldn't have to give up your first baby, your pet," Williams says. "You want to integrate it into the new family so it's just an extended family - and you almost always can do it."
Source: Tidewater Parent Magazine