New Babies
New babies, pets and how to make it work
copyright (c) 2021 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 house-
holds 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 relinquish-
ment 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),
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

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.

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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.
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.
This is not the way to hold a cat, notice
the flattened ears .
"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
(Elizabeth Albert) Not the way to hold a cat. See
the tension in the child's hands, flexing the
cat inappropriately, and signs of stress in
the round eyes, dilated pupils and forward
"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)  Teach appropriate
child pet interactions along with the right
pet furniture so cats can be in safe and
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813
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