My first baby was a 5-pound French bulldog puppy named Napoleon. For three glorious years, he led the life of a pampered New York City pooch. Then, in October 2003, his perfect world was shattered by the high-decibel cries of a strange, tiny creature who couldn't even walk to her own water dish -- our newborn daughter, Sasha. Napoleon spent a considerable amount of time sulking. However, after some lavish affection from our next-door neighbors, a few new treats, and a bit of obedience training for both child and dog, Napoleon and Sasha have become fast friends, proving that even the most spoiled pet can learn to love his new sibling. Here's how to make it happen.
Understanding a little animal psychology can help make things easier on felines and canines alike. All pets are concerned with territory. If, for example, your cat likes to sleep in a particular spot in your family room, pick another spot to park the bouncy seat.
And animals, like babies, thrive on predictability and routine. If you're planning on moving your furniture around or turning your office into a nursery, do it long before the baby comes so your pet can get used to one world-rocking change at a time. "Let your cat or dog sniff around the baby's room and look at her things," says Janis Driscoll, PhD, an animal behaviorist at Animal Behavior Associates, a company that troubleshoots animal behavior problems, in Denver, Colorado. "By the time baby comes home, your pet won't be quite so curious about her belongings."
Of course, it also helps to give your pet a preview of what life will be like with his new sibling. Host a few children and their parents for an hour or two. This will give you some idea as to how your pet will respond to the chaos a new child can bring. It will also give you the opportunity to change any behavior you don't like. "If your dog tends to jump up, say no firmly," says Robert DeFranco, an animal behaviorist with the Animal Behavior Society, in Rego Park, New York. The less positive reinforcement an animal gets from a behavior, the less likely he is to continue it.
Once your baby is home from the hospital, your best bet for family harmony is to help your pet associate her with things he likes and enjoys. Both Driscoll and DeFranco suggest taking a couple of used baby blankets or burp cloths and placing one where your pet eats and one where he sleeps -- for cats and dogs, eating and sleeping are two of life's greatest pleasures. It's also smart to let your pet sniff baby while you hold her. And don't forget that animals aren't all that different from babies. They crave love and attention, so it's wise to ask a friend or neighborhood child to come play with your pet.
Unfortunately, despite your best efforts, your pet may act out. A dog may urinate on a baby toy, or a cat may defecate in your child's bouncy seat. These aren't acts of anger. "Animals communicate through the chemicals they produce in their bodies, namely urine or feces," says DeFranco. "Marking territory is a pet's way of asserting himself." If your pet behaves this way, think about what changed in his world that made him act out. Is your dog not getting enough exercise? Is your cat's litter box dirtier than usual? Then set about resolving these issues.
Ultimately, the best preventive measures you can take are constant supervision and observation. "If a pet growls, nips, or hisses, it's a sign of aggression," says DeFranco. Discipline him with a firm no, and take him out of the room for 15 seconds. Then make a point of rewarding your pet with a pat or a treat when he behaves well. If your dog or cat is continually aggressive with your child, your choices are these: Hire an animal behaviorist to help change your pet's behavior, or find another loving home for your pet.
Cats tend to adjust more easily to kids than dogs. The reason? Felines don't form the same kind of social attachment to humans that canines do, says Driscoll. They're more likely to hide than get resentful. But there are a few issues cat lovers need to address.
Your first consideration? The litter box. Cat waste is hazardous to pregnant women because it can carry the bacteria that causes toxoplasmosis, an illness that may result in miscarriage, or damage a newborn baby's eyes or brain. Relegate cat cleanup to your partner.
Cats are also agile enough to reach any nook or cranny and curious enough to poke their whiskery noses into everything, such as your baby's crib or bassinet. Set baby's bed up early so the cat can give it a sniff (and grow bored with it) long before baby arrives. If you catch your cat settling in for a snooze, say "No!" firmly and remove him from the area. If he's stubborn, make the crib inhospitable by covering it with a mesh crib tent sold at many baby stores.
What happens if your cat scratches your child? It's unlikely that this will happen to a newborn, but a curious toddler might be the victim of a swipe or two. Some scratches cause an illness called cat-scratch disease, which is marked by small pimples near the sight of the scratch. Prevent this by teaching your child to be gentle to your cat and to let the cat be if he's eating or sleeping.
Like my dog, Napoleon, your furry friend might have some trouble adjusting to his new housemate. "Dogs form strong social attachments to people," says Driscoll. When your dog moves from top dog to underdog after baby comes, he will likely be confused, "and a confused dog is more likely to form negative associations with a new baby," says Driscoll. Take your dog to parks before baby comes so he can adjust to being around kids, advises DeFranco.
And if you haven't trained your dog already, consider obedience school. "It sets up a system of communication between you and your dog," says DeFranco. "It lets him know who's boss in your house: you. If a dog doesn't know his place, he's likely to think of himself as the leader and less likely to respond to the commands of his guardian."
An issue that frequently comes up when a baby and a dog share a home is tussling over toys. Try to keep baby toys and dog toys separate, but if your pet grabs one of your baby's playthings, take it away and redirect him to something of his own. When the dog plays with his toys, reward him. DeFranco also recommends rubbing your dog's toys with almond oil. "He'll associate the good smell with his things and won't go after the baby's." What if baby grabs your pet's toy? Redirect him to his own things and praise him -- no almond oil needed!
What if you're a bird, reptile, hamster, or fish fan? You have less to worry about, particularly from a socialization standpoint (goldfish aren't known to hold grudges). However, there are other issues to consider. Here's what you need to know about these crawling, flying, and swimming critters.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, September 2005.