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How a Baby Changes Your Pet's Life: Frequently Asked Questions

It's common for a pet to face some difficulties adjusting to the newest family addition. What can you do to ease the transition? Here's some advice from Suzanne Hetts, PhD, an animal behaviorist who, along with her husband, owns Animal Behavior Associates in Littleton, Colorado.

Can you prepare a dog or cat for a baby?

While you obviously can't warn them of what's ahead, you can start, during pregnancy, to desensitize pets to life with an infant. You may have heard that it's a good idea to carry around a baby doll -- it may seem silly, but it gets a pet used to seeing you with a bundle in your arms or on your lap. You need to teach a dog, particularly, not to jump on you when you have the doll. If a dog doesn't respond to verbal commands, such as "sit" or "down," we suggest you start obedience training well before your baby's birth.

Cats and dogs are also sensitive to newborns' cries, so you might gradually get them accustomed to the sound by playing a recording (tape a friend's baby or buy a CD from animalbehaviorassociates.com). Invite friends with children to come over more often to get your pet further adjusted to life with kids. It's important to socialize a cat or dog well beforehand. Pets that are only used to you and your partner will have a harder time with the baby.

Lavishing a pet with attention during your pregnancy may be well intentioned, but it's actually not the best idea. If your pet is used to being the center of your universe, back off a bit before the baby is born. That gives your pet the opportunity to become more independent.

It also helps to bring out the baby gear early. Though you may hate the thought of a baby swing taking up space before you need it, you want your pet to be bored with it before the baby starts using it (and also not associate all the furniture-moving chaos with the newcomer). Finally, babyhood involves a lot of new odors. Start using baby lotions, powders, and soaps on yourself or on a doll before the birth.

Many experts say Dad should bring a blanket that was wrapped around the newborn home from the hospital for the pet to sniff. What does that do?

You want your dog's or cat's first whiff of the baby to have a pleasant association. Try putting a blanket with your newborn's scent right in the pet's bed, under his food dish, or in his favorite nap spot.

Do older pets react differently to babies than younger ones?

There's no research on the subject. Older pets may be more set in their ways, but a pet's individual personality plays a bigger role. You probably already know whether your pet stays calm in new situations or gets nervous when routines are broken, so you may have an idea of what you're in for.

Let's say your pet acts out anger by peeing on something of the baby's. How should you deal with the pet's anger?

Actually, contrary to popular belief, cats and dogs don't use waste products as spiteful communications tools. Poop and pee are not demeaning items as far as they're concerned. But cats and dogs will both use urination or defecation to mark their territory.

Before you get angry, step back and try to figure out what motivated your pet. Then try to change it. Maybe the litter box isn't being cleaned enough? The dog isn't getting walked as often? Or some piece of baby gear is sitting where your pet used to sleep? By reinstating old routines as best you can or moving the baby gear to a less offensive spot, you may be able to end pet "accidents."

And if you do catch a pet trying to pee on the baby's activity mat?

Try saying "No!" or stomp your feet or throw a pillow past him. If it's a dog, take him outside right away, but don't be angry. Try to stay positive so it's not traumatic. You should never rush a cat to the litter box, however. Being forced toward the box might create an aversion. Just chase the cat away instead. Clean any messes with an enzymatic cleaner -- vinegar or ammonia may draw a pet back to the spot.

Why is a pet frequently underfoot when you're trying to take care of the baby?

Most pets are accustomed, when they hear the tones of baby talk, to believe you're talking to them. When you coo at the baby, the pet will probably look to you for attention. To help make it clear who you're talking to, use your pet's name when you're talking to him, and be sure to look at him too.

How do you keep yourself from feeling guilty about no longer having as much time for your pet?

Many families hire a neighborhood kid to play with their dog, but put him in doggy daycare, or hire a dog walker a few days a week. Regardless, go easy on the guilt. Most pets do adjust -- there's just a change in terms of how much time they receive. Pets live in the moment; they don't think about the time they used to get. And remember, your animal needs to be petted and needs to be around people, but he doesn't need someone focused on him 24 hours a day. When you get settled into a routine with your baby, then you can devote more time and energy to your pet.

As your baby grows, do things get easier?

Actually, once a toddler begins to invade the pet's space, there are more problems. A child playing with the pet's food is a common dilemma. For cats, place a dish on a high counter (or somewhere such as the top of a clothes dryer) and fill it with a treat to entice the cat to the new spot. For dogs, make sure to stick to a regular feeding schedule so that a dish of food is on the floor for 15 or 20 minutes twice a day but is otherwise unavailable. The dog will get used to eating during those times and you can keep the child out of the room.

When are kids old enough to know how to pet gently?

From the beginning, you can guide their hands, but they're not capable of being gentle on their own until they're close to age 3. Toddlers are simply too enthusiastic and incapable of checking their own impulses, which is why supervision is vital.

When will life return to normal for the pet?

Cats may take longer to adjust than dogs, and a year isn't out of the question. Behavioral changes like hiding, loss of appetite, or peeing where they're not supposed to might surface now and then, but when they disappear, it's a sign that your pet is adapting. If such problems don't go away, visit a veterinarian to make sure there aren't medical issues unrelated to the new baby.

If you don't have a pet, is it smart to get one when your baby is young?

Having a puppy or kitten is like having another baby -- but one with sharp teeth and no diapers. They're a handful, so it's probably a good idea to wait a bit. A school-age child will be better able to help with pet care.