This week I opted to have a guest blogger talk about pets, babies, and preparing your life for the intersection of the two. My friend Melissa has 15 years of experience as a veterenary technician and had a baby in a house that she calls "very pet-centric" so here's her story, and expert advice!
When I brought my daughter home for the first time she joined a household of furbabies. There was the hyperactive Australian Shepherd, the timid chihuahua/ terrier mix, and three cats of varying temperaments (one social and outgoing, one flighty and timid, and one who pretty much existed in her own world unless we had something she wanted like food or occasional attention).
My hyperactive Aussie had been raised around children and toddlers (like many of my pets, I was a second owner) so I knew he would love the baby, but I also knew that his size and his exuberant nature meant he would inadvertently harm her if he was allowed access to her. My timid chihuahua mix was used to simply ignoring anything he was uncomfortable with and refusing to make eye contact with it as long as it didn't represent any immediate threat to him, and sure enough that was his take on the baby. She was perfectly welcome as long as she wasn't chasing him or pulling his tail. (An entirely different issue two years down the road now!) He spent many peaceful hours in that fourth trimester sleeping on my legs while the baby took the prized lap position. He also loved the boppy and that's where we could find him whenever the baby wasn't in it! Each cat took a different take on the baby as well, which could be predicted by their temperaments. My social butterfly wasn't phased for one minute, though he did give baby her space. But he was often found vying for any available real estate on my lap because before baby came it was always a race between him and the chihuahua mix to see who would get there first! The cat who had previously existed in her own universe and occasionally deigned to acknowledge her human servants didn't show any change in behavior after the baby arrived, except perhaps a bit of annoyance that all this new cozy stuff (crib, swing, etc.) wasn't for her.
All the pets were used to their routines, which of course went completely upside down when the baby came! The poor dogs didn't get a good walk for probably the first three months of baby's life, I barely had any energy to take them outside for any one-on-one attention and training during nap times, and looking back they all lost a little weight because there were nights we literally forgot to feed the poor things! We'd wake up in the morning and ask each other, "did you feed the pets yesterday?" Oops. But it's important for you to forgive yourself for these things! In my profession I see many new parents abandon their pets because they feel they're neglecting them for the new baby, but it's important to remember that after a while things WILL normalize out and you will once again have the time and energy to give your pets the attention they deserve. Getting rid of a pet during the new baby phase is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. And don't worry- the dog WILL forgive the baby for all this neglect the day that baby starts chucking food from the high chair! From that day on that dog will adore that child!
The Aussie had the biggest change. He had to be constantly gated into whatever part of the house the baby wasn't in, because he was a safety hazard for her. He would never dream of biting her, or any human really, but I've had enough scratches and bruises from his roughhousing to know that if he got excited about seeing the baby she could get a big paw in her face pretty quickly. Again, some owners might have taken the "get rid of the dog" approach, but I'm glad I didn't. At nearly two years old I'm starting to see the love affair this child and dog are forming, and as she grows and can have more contact with him those two will be a real pair! I can already see that this dog will be the childhood dog that many happy memories get formed with, and all it took on my part was a willingness to keep a dog in my kitchen for a few months. (Once she was no longer room sharing with us, he got the bedroom spot back.)
The chihuahua didn't see too much restriction in his daily routine except he lost his spot in our bed while the baby room shared with us. Mostly because of my (Rational? Irrational?) fear that he'd take the easy step from bed to bassinet and snuggle with that warm baby, and possibly suffocate her. So he slept on the floor. But don't feel too bad for the poor little dog, he got my old pillow for a dog bed as a consolation prize, so he had his very own temper-pedic doggie bed!
The only restrictions the cats needed were to be kept out of the master bedroom at night while baby was room sharing, and out of the nursery at all times. (I didn't want cat hair in the crib!)
The animal who took baby's arrival hard was my timid cat. He had always shown symptoms of anxiety, but after the baby came he pretty much couldn't handle it anymore. He began urinating in inappropriate places to express his anxiety. In the end we did find a way for him and the new addition to peacefully coexist, but only with great help from my veterinarian and some anti-anxiety medication. A few months after baby's arrival he was back to being as normal as he had ever been, which wasn't a high bar.
In retrospect the cat might have benefited from some kind of "easing in" process, but knowing him probably not. He's always been a few eggs shy of a dozen. Also helping me was that I had two extremely well-trained dogs. (Don't let the Aussie's hyperactivity fool you- he's an extremely accomplished agility and herding dog who went on to earn accolades as a scent detection animal). My dogs knew their place in the household pack, and never questioned it when I brought home our little bundle of joy and declared her above them in the pack hierarchy. At the age of almost two my daughter is telling my Aussie "Heel" and "Sit", and he's listening to her. The biggest and absolutely most important step I can recommend any dog owner take before bringing home baby is to make sure the dog is well trained!
On top of that, knowing your pet's temperament and training well will be your best predictor of how the pet will react after baby. The pet's behavior never really CHANGES, they just sometimes exhibit signs of the same temperament that they've always had that they didn't exhibit before. A knowledgeable owner who has made an honest assessment of their pet's temperament and training will rarely be surprised by any new behaviors, and can usually foreseeand circumvent most negative behaviors.
I have always been, and continue to be, a strong advocate for absolutely NO unsupervised contact between an infant and pets. Cats often will seek a warm place to sleep, and next to a baby is a very warm spot! There have been cases of cats accidentally suffocating babies. Also, some owners can be somewhat blind to their pet's temperament and may not accurately predict their pet's reaction to the baby, which in some cases has led to disastrous results. All interactions between baby and pet should be supervised and monitored, and as baby grows and becomes more mobile, parents will need to be even more aware of these interactions. That squalling newborn lump might evoke jealousy in a dog who has been given the belief that he was supposed to rule the roost, but its a rare pet of any temperament likes having their tail and fur pulled by a crawling or walking baby!
As for my daughter, she's not quite two so there isn't too much teaching I can do quite yet. Any contact with anything furry in my house is still very regulated and supervised and we're working on concepts like "gentle" and "quit chasing the dog!". The little dog now spends more time behind the baby gate for his own relaxation and safety! As she grows I'll consider it very important for her to try and imagine how her actions FEEL to the animal, (Would it hurt if someone pulled on your tail?) and also basic animal safety (we don't pet strange doggies).
Overall the mix has well worth it. I believe pets help kids develop a sense of empathy, responsibility, and respect. Plus I haven't needed to clean up a single crumb that has hit the floor of this house yet! (Something that is beyond priceless to me at 8 months pregnant with my second! Less bending over!) The Aussie will reap the benefits of having a playmate with energy as nearly boundless as his own in just a couple short years, and the chihuahua mix will someday enjoy another warm lap for cuddling once that lap learns how to sit still for five minutes. My social butterfly cat, who has been in my life since High School and is turning 17 years old this weekend, is absolutely in love with my toddler and enjoys her attention all day. He doesn't even mind the tail pulling!