New babies, pets and how to make it work

By 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 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.

Research and 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.


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.

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