Pets and Babies

By: Bonnie Beaver, DVM, MS, DACVB

TVMA Member
College Station, TX

Published January 2016

Babies and pets are two of the real joys in life. The combination of the little person and the animal, however, does not always work out well. Thus, it is important to take appropriate measures in helping the animal adjust during this uncertain time so the baby and the dog or cat can live together peacefully and safely.

Preparing for the Arrival

The best time to start preparing the pet for the arrival of the new family member is several months beforehand. The most critical change that will occur for the animal is in its schedule of human interaction. The pet has been the center of attention and is not used to having to share time with anyone. Most people feel their animal is already on a good schedule because it is fed, and perhaps walked, at specific times each day. In reality, the subtle and spontaneous interactions, like being pet while you watch television and sleeping on the bed, are far more significant to the animal. Very gradual changes can occur before the baby arrives to establish and maintain a schedule of specific interactions. If you pet the animal while watching television, reduce the time spent petting it and perhaps slowly increase the time the animal must be off the sofa. Start the petting at the same time each day, just shorten the length of time. If the pet is going to start sleeping in a crate instead of on the master bed, give it high-value treats only in the crate. Over a several week period, leave the door open at first and then shut the crate door for a few seconds to several minutes. If you plan on changing the pet from an indoor animal to an outdoor one, this transition should occur by slowly increasing the amount of time the animal spends outside, acclimating him or her to ambient temperatures, new surroundings and changes in feeling.

Stick to the Schedule

Once baby arrives, keeping to your pet’s schedule is key to maintaining normalcy. The first few days are the most disruptive because of visitors, but when life settles down, the thing that will matter most to the animal is the timing of the attention, not the amount. Do not lavish excessive attention on the dog or cat when you have free time because you feel guilty about possible neglect; this can actually lead to the development of separation anxiety. Keep the primary contacts to specific times each day so your pet will look forward to those times.

The cat or dog should not be banned from the nursery or seeing the baby. Rather, you should do fun things primarily when the baby is around so the pet looks forward to those times together. Include the pet in exciting talk with the baby at bath time, or play ball with him or her in the baby’s presence.

Adult Supervision

Adult supervision is important at all times because infants move abruptly, make loud sounds and can inadvertently injure the animal. Since many dogs and cats react to pain or being startled with aggression, they may bite or scratch the baby in response to the action. It is not the result of disliking the baby, just a predictable and preventable response to the source of the hurt.

Dogs and cats are particularly vulnerable to negative interactions when children start to crawl or stand. Children often see the dog and move toward it, perhaps even cornering the pet; a warning bite is the only communication the animal has left to make the child retreat. Unless prevented from doing so, children will often pull on tails, ears or hair and are likely to cause a frightening or injured pet to negatively react. Children of this age should never be left unsupervised around pets for their protection, as well as for that of the pet itself.

Puppies that were not raised around small children may not adjust to their presence as well as adult dogs. If the dog growls at the child or seems restless when the infant cries, consider taking special precautions to prevent injury. This involves adult supervision when the baby and dog are within reach of each other. If you are concerned about your pet’s behavior around the baby, consult your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist. As a last resort for safety, you may consider getting the dog out of the home—at least until the baby is older. If the dog paces between you and the baby when the infant cries, it might be really disturbed by the noise. Many owners mistakenly assume the dog is being protective of the baby. This behavior is potentially the most dangerous so taking appropriate measures to protect the child are necessary.

Any dog or cat can injure a child. Enthusiastic and appropriate preparation and introductions can minimize future problems between the baby and pet. Careful, supervised interactions can make for long-term enjoyable experiences.

Bonnie Beaver, DVM, DACVB, is graduate of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine who lives in College Station, Texas. Dr. Beaver is a professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at Texas A&M University.