New Babies
and
Pets
New babies, pets and how to make it work (c) 2016-2018 Frania Shelley-Grielen all
rights reserved

How prepared are we when we bring a new baby into a home with pets?  How well do
we understand the changes that come with a new addition; how they affect us and our
relationships with all of the members of our family; including our cats and dogs?   How
well do we handle this?  And can we do better?  Here’s a look at some of what we know
and some strategies and guidelines to keep everyone happy, healthy and at home:

We do know there is a great deal of concern with the arrival of a new born baby into a
household and when that household has pets, not all of the concerns appear easily
resolved.  A study of 12 animal shelters in six states, including New York and New
Jersey (Scarlett, et. al. 1999), looked at the personal and health reasons listed for the
surrender of 520 dog owning households giving up 554 dogs and 384 households
relinquishing 488 cats.  “New baby” is among the top three reasons given for cats and
in the top four reasons for dogs.  The study also showed allergies as the number one
reason for cat surrender even as 15% of these households still had dogs at home and
11% still had other cats.  When we look at the families citing a new baby as the reason
for relinquishing a pet we see that more that 33% of all cats and dogs had been acquired
during the previous nine months and 40% during the previous year.  “Conflict with a
child” was reported for more than 3% of all dogs given up and less than 2% of all cats
given up with close to a third of these surrenders occurring within one month of
ownership.

The study is a valuable starting point as a source of information.  It also may suggest
more questions than it answers.  The data is drawn from interviews given to survey
questions and as such whether or not some of the reasons for relinquishment such as
“allergies” (especially where other pets are retained) are offered as socially acceptable
reasons for surrender cannot be determined.  People dropping off family pets at animal
shelters are understandably reluctant to be negatively judged.  The study also does not
compare people who have new babies and retain their pets so we are not able to
determine if similar issues exist for the pet retaining group and why it is not an issue
or if it is, how it is overcome.

When “new baby” is listed as a reason by itself there is no other information offered as to
why the addition of the baby is a cause to give up a family pet.  We also see that the
shorter the time a pet is in a family with a baby, the more likely the pet will be
surrendered.  This by itself may suggest a number of things from a lack of familiarity
with how to successfully integrate a new baby into an existing pet owning family, fear
and anxiety on the part of the pet or owner or a response to general input from
surrounding community and family members that pets and babies don’t mix.  When
“conflict with a child “is reported we cannot know how “conflict” itself is being
determined.  Is the conflict one of feeling, sentiment or actions?  In the case of action, is
the behavior appropriate, misunderstood or provoked?  Is there appropriate supervision
to determine what is going on?

What then are some of the things that can help pet owning families keep pets and babies
safely together at home?

Understanding how our pets fit into our families: One of the reasons our
companion animals fit so well into our families is their similarities in a shared social
system.  Molly Love and Karen Overall compare the convergence between human and
canine social systems and advise on how heightened awareness of the differences
prevent disasters (Love, Overall. 2001).  Our increasing knowledge of cat social
behavior can extend this convergence to feline social systems as well.  In other words,
Cats, dogs and humans share a social system with extended family groups caring for
young, highly ritualized visual signals including a communication system that relies
mainly on non verbal communication or body language and social deference to avoid
conflict.  How we do this differs for each species and this is where confusion, stress and
conflict can arise if we expect human behaviors from non humans.

A look at greeting behavior for dogs shows us a specific approach which averts eye
contact, approaches from the side and gains important information from butt sniffing,
for dog friends a joyous jump on each other celebrates the occasion, for cats, friendly
intent is signaled by a raised tail, soft eyes with a slow blink and a nose touch, good cat
friends may bunt heads or do a quick side to side body rub.  Human greeting behavior is
culturally dependent but often includes frontal body stance, direct eye contact and close
physical contact in the form of hugging, kissing or grasping hands none of which cats
and dogs do.  And while we may share deference in withdrawal, looking away and
walking away our signs of stress preceding retreat differ markedly.  Early signs of stress
are yawning or lip licking out of the context of hunger or fatigue for dogs, displacement
grooming, flattened ears and tail flicking for cats all of which may be misinterpreted by
humans.  One of the most important things we can do for our pets in general and most
certainly when a new baby is on the way or has arrived is to understand how our pets
communicate.  The next most important thing is to understand how we are
communicating with them and to make sure that our interactions are appropriate and
benefit the humans and the pets.

Getting your pet owning family ready for a new baby:   A new baby is a major
change in household routine, environment and how everyone in the family will be
acting and reacting going forward will change as well.  If the dog in the family has not
been trained, this is the most opportune and necessary time for force-free training as
well as working with any cat behaviors that might be problematic.  Putting structure
into place allows the dog to learn and be rewarded for new behaviors and learn new
responses to new situations.  This includes for both cat and dog being able to easily
access, use and locate a safe retreat from a stressful situation or unwelcome attention.  
This is especially effective for anxious or fearful dogs or cats.  A review of the home
environment in addition to baby proofing should make sure the home is comfortable for
the pets as well with an enriched environment (see more on this for
cats and dogs)
providing for varied raised refuges and resting places for cats as well as multiple refuges
and resting places for dogs to retreat to at their choice and when asked.  Behaviors such
as jumping, barking or those early morning feline food requests that may have been
tolerated prior can be addressed or managed as well. It is key to look at the individual
breed characteristics and personality of each pet and tailor training and modification
programs accordingly.  While there are no one-size-fits-all solutions there are a wealth of
strategies, guidelines and tips that families can utilize with their own pet in mind.  A
good number of valuable resources for pet owners detail the how-to’s of safely getting
your home ready for a new baby.  Make sure to look at credible sites such as the
ASPCA
(for dogs), Blue Cross (for cats), and the American Humane for both, all of which are
linked here.

When the baby arrives: It is so important to be aware that the relationship with pet
and owner predates that of the relationship with owner and baby. This means for the pet
that they will respond primarily to the owner and form whatever associations the owner
shows are meaningful in relation to a child in their presence.  If an owner is anxious,
angry or fearful around a new baby when the pet is around than this is the association
the pet is exposed to.  Molly Love and Karen Overall discuss the concept of “appropriate
guidance” to anticipate, manage and supervise the right interactions between child and
dog.  Humans need appropriate guidance to make sure we understand dog behavior, cat
behavior and humane handling and interactions so we can apply them and make sure
our children learn them as well (more on bite prevention and safe cat handling here).

Love and Overall also contrast the developmental milestones of children as the relate to
canines; for the infant less than 6 months we see reflexive behaviors along with sitting
up and creeping.  The behaviors of infants typically affecting dogs (and cats) are new
noises such as crying, screaming and babbling. The presence of the new baby will
generate a host of new smells from baby and mother that a pet is aware of.  Infants less
than 6 months old  are prone to grabbing body parts or fur of a pet.  The typical response
on the part of the dog is sniffing, licking, and initial avoidance.  A cat will typically
remain, tense, tail flick and retreat.  Insuring the opportunity and allowing for
avoidance and retreat is key. Forcing an interaction or asking an animal to submit to
one they would rather avoid can only create stress.  For dogs with a diagnosis of
predatory or fear aggression or a cat with a history of fear aggression unsupervised
interactions put both baby and animal at risk.

As children develop and begin crawling, walking and running a family pet becomes a
natural target of curiosity and investigation including using hands, mouth and teeth to
do so.  Typical behaviors expected in response from a pet are freezing and avoidance with
the same cautions to allow for retreat, supervise interactions and be mindful of extra
consideration for fearful or anxious pets.  Very young children may not have sufficient
motor skills to stroke pets, tending to pat repeatedly or lay hands on an animal instead.  
And while this may often be endured by the pet it does not mean it is welcome.  Teaching
a child the correct way to approach and pet a dog or cat means having the knowledge to
both be able to model the behavior for the child and to shape it with appropriate
intervention if necessary.

While toddlers and younger children may be fascinated by animals they are  
developmentally still egocentric and empathy skills are not developed.  This is
significant for caregivers to be mindful of; we can and should explain how a dog or a cat
might be feeling and what constitutes humane handling but we need to remember that
this will bear continued repetition and supervision to be absorbed and applied.  A look at
2-3 year olds from a French study showing how young children and their pet dogs
communicated (Millot, Filiatre, et al. 1988) finds that children approach their dogs
twice as frequently as the dog approached the child.  The researchers found that
agonistic –social behavior relating to fighting, were associated more frequently with 2
and 3 year old children.  These behaviors relating to fighting were usually met (61%)
with the dog usually retreating or showing appeasing behavior.  Similarly children
showed retreat more frequently than returning a threat when a dog displayed threat or
aggressive behavior toward them.

Warning signs and what to do about them:  Signs that an animal is not handling
the addition well include sudden changes in behavior, including withdrawal, vigilance,
patrolling behavior and increased or different vocalizations, changes in sleeping patterns
including duration and locations, increased reactivity in specific or general
circumstances, anxiety when around the child or signs of fearful or defensive aggression
around the child.  These are clear and significant signals of stress, discomfort and
unease.  It is vitally important that the owner first and foremost manage the situation
by removing the stressor which is most probably inappropriate interactions between
child and pet.  Avoid punishment to reduce stress and lessen aggression and begin a
careful program of behavioral modification.

Working with a well trained professional is the most ideal solution.  Taking the time to
learn, appropriately supervise and manage the situation needs to be immediate to
ensure everyone’s safety.

References:
Scareltt, J.M., Salman, M.D., New, J.G., Kass, P.H. (1999) Reasons for Relinquishment of Companion
Animals in U.S. Animal Shelters: Selected Health and Personal Issues.
Journal of Applied Animal Welfare
Science
, 2(1), 41-57.

Love, M., Overall, K.L.(2001) How anticipating relationships between dogs and children can help prevent
disasters.
 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 219 (4), 446-453.

Millot, J.L., Filiatre, J.C., Gagnon, A.C., Eckerlin, A, Montagner. (1988). Children and their pet dogs: how
they communicate.  
Behavioural Processes, (17) 1-15.
(Cheryl) The wrong way to hold a cat.  The cat is not supported properly
and those flattened ears attest to discomfort with the interaction..
"Cats, dogs and humans share a
social system with extended family
groups caring for young, highly
ritualized visual signals including a
communication system that relies
mainly on non verbal communication
or body language and social
deference to avoid conflict.  How we
do this differs for each species and
this is where confusion, stress and
conflict can arise if we expect human
behaviors from non humans."
(copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen) Recognize the times when a pet
actively seeks retreat
(Craig Pennington) And times when the wrong kind of restraint and
attention are not welcome.  The tense leash and looking away are signs
of stress.  
(Elizabeth Albert) The wrong way to hold a cat.  Note the tension in
the child's hands, flexing the cat inappropriately, and signs of
stress in the round eyes, dilated pupils and forward whiskers on the cat
"It is so important to be aware that
the relationship with pet and owner
predates that of the relationship with
owner and baby. This means for the
pet that they will respond primarily
to the owner and form whatever
associations the owner shows are
meaningful in relation to a child in
their presence.  If an owner is
anxious, angry or fearful around a
new baby when the pet is around
than this is the association the pet is
exposed to."
Request a consultation
(copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen)  Teaching appropriate child pet
interactions along with the right pet furniture so cats can be in safe and
comfortable vantage points makes all the difference for the whole family
Maria Gray
info@animalbehaviorist.us
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813

Entire website copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
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