For many people, their dog or cat was their first baby. But sometimes when a human baby comes along, it takes effort to make sure everyone lives in harmony—and safety.
The first rule: Never leave a baby, toddler or small child alone with a pet, no matter how gentle or loving the animal. Animal behavior can be unpredictable.
“We always recommend supervision between pets and young children to protect both the child and the pet,” says NC State veterinarian Margaret E. Gruen, DVM, MVPH, PhD. “Any dog can bite, and a cat might scratch a child inadvertently.”
Dog bites often cause visible damage, but cat bites are more likely to become infected, says UNC Health pediatrician Edward M. Pickens, MD. And of course, even a minor altercation might threaten your pet’s ability to stay in your home—another sad outcome you want to avoid.
“Most of the time, everything is fine with babies and pets,” Dr. Pickens says. “But there are steps parents can take to set up the family for success.”
As soon as you know a baby is on the way, you can start preparing your pets, Dr. Gruen says. “This is a major change to their environment, so the sooner the better,” she says.
Some ways to get pets ready:
- If your dog doesn’t know basic commands, such as sit and stay, teach him so he’s prepared to listen to you when the baby is near.
- If you are going to prevent your pet from sleeping in a certain room or climbing on furniture, start that training early.
- Set up baby equipment as you get it, such as swings and strollers, so your pet becomes accustomed to their presence.
- Toys can be noisy. Turn some on and let your pet get used to the ruckus.
- Once the newborn days are over, babies spend a lot of time on the floor. You can train your dog to stay off a play mat or put up a baby gate.
- It might sound silly, but you can use a doll to get your pet used to the idea of a small human who will constantly be in your arms.
- Make sure you have a pet care plan for when you’re in the hospital with the baby.
Bringing Baby Home
Once the baby is born, bring something home from the hospital that smells like him or her, such as a receiving blanket, Dr. Pickens says. This is especially helpful for dogs, who can get an early preview of their new family member.
While you’ll undoubtedly be preoccupied with your new baby, don’t forget your pet is going through a transition, too.
“For a dog, the three most stressful times are when the baby first comes home, when the child learns to crawl and when the child learns to walk,” Dr. Gruen says.
It’s critical to keep giving your dog attention and adequate exercise. When he follows your directions around the baby, reward him with praise and treats. You want the dog to think, “When the baby is around, good things happen.”
Some dogs regress and pursue negative attention, by peeing on the floor or destroying furniture, Dr. Pickens says. If that happens, seek the advice of your veterinarian or a trainer. Do not yell at or hit your dog; this will only destabilize him more and cause further problems. And don’t scold your dog for picking up a baby toy; just take it and replace it with a dog toy.
As the baby starts to crawl, make sure the dog has a safe place—such as a crate or dog bed or even a particular bedroom—where he can go to get away and the baby is not allowed. Always give your dog an out so he doesn’t feel trapped.
“Young kids can be really scary for dogs,” Dr. Gruen says, and a baby’s cries or screams can stress out the dog. “They can be a roller coaster emotionally.”
If your dog growls at the baby and then walks away, don’t scold the dog. He gave a warning and avoided escalating the situation, which is behavior you want to encourage.
Cats are “conflict-averse” and better than dogs at getting away from children when they’re uncomfortable, Dr. Gruen says. But they, too, can bite, and their mouths are full of bacteria that can cause infection.
Teaching Your Young Child About Pets
Once your little one can understand, start teaching him or her about how to treat pets and other animals. You can show your toddler how to touch and feed your animal and point out signs that a pet wants to be left alone. Tell your child never to hit or strike a pet, and lead by example.
“Teach your kids to be careful in how they approach dogs,” Dr. Gruen says. “You always want to be especially careful when a dog is eating or sleeping.”
Know that as your baby turns into a toddler and beyond, he or she will continue to need supervision around pets. “Toddlers may not know a dog’s limits and yank the dog’s tail,” Dr. Pickens says. “Sometimes a dog will turn around and take a nip. That is normal behavior for a dog, so you’ve got to supervise toddlers at all times.”
If all this sounds like a lot of work, it can be—but the benefits of growing up with pets are real for children.
“Children around animals are calmer,” Dr. Pickens says. “And they learn about sharing, they learn patience, they learn about companionship. There is even emerging data that having a pet can be beneficial to a child’s immune system.”
Pets can win in the end, too; if they’re patient, they eventually end up with a new playmate—and an extra set of hands to give head scratches and treats.
If you have a pet and are growing your family, talk to your doctor about preparing your pet for your baby’s arrival. Need a doctor? Find one near you.