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 consider-
ation 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  development-
ally 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.

This article is an original work and is subject to copyright. You may create a link to this
article on another website or in a document back to this web page. You may not copy this
article in whole or in part onto another web page or document without permission of the
author. Email inquiries to info@animalbehaviorist.us

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.
This is not the way to hold a cat, see the flattened
ears attesting  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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