Old Dogs and Cats, New Tricks
Helping your furry family members adjust to a new baby!
Bringing a new baby home is always a stressful endeavor. Here’s an observation I have made over the past few years of being a vet and a parent: Young people get young animals. Those animals grow up and get all of their pet parent’s attention. In the golden years of that animal’s life, the pet parent becomes a human parent. Suddenly, in the senior years of that pet’s life, they go from the sole recipient of their family’s love and attention to sharing that affection with a baby (then two, then three!). Not only do they suddenly have to share the attention, the sharer of attention is sticky, grabby, full of energy, and loud! What a transition! We might have to show our pups a little grace if they don’t handle the situation with all the dignity we might hope! Let’s talk about how we can help them to handle the transition!
Before I start with my suggestions, let me tell you the truth. My family consists of veterinarian mom and dad, 2 year old toddler, 11 month old baby, a 9 year old cat, and an 11 year old Papillon. My dog occasionally pees on our kitchen table. Yes. Our kitchen table. I’m not proud. My cat regularly pees in the highchair. Yes. In the highchair. Again. I’m not proud. The team has actually been asking me to write this particular blog post since my 2 year old was born. I’ve been insistent on not writing it BECAUSE I’m more than just a little embarrassed with my poor pet parenting. Shouldn’t I, a veterinarian, be better at training my animals? If you can learn anything from my situation, it’s that no one is perfect. Not the parent, and not the animal. Have patience with your pet, have patience with yourself, and tweak your routine just a little to help your pets join the team!
Number 1: Anticipate the stress on your animals, and watch for stress behaviors. This is probably most important for cats (and doubly important for boy cats!). I love feliway for cats. Start a feliway diffuser a week or two before expected arrival, and continue it for a few weeks after the arrival of the baby. Purchase a few extra puzzle feeders or kong toys to give some extra mental stimulation and occupy some time. Watch for stress behaviors- hiding, urinating outside the litter box, changes in appetite, straining in the litter box, and acting fearful. If you start to see stress behaviors, touch base with your veterinarian. If you have a cat, particularly a boy cat, and you start to see any urinary troubles, touch base with your vet sooner rather than later. Boy cats are at a higher risk for urinary obstruction, which is associated with stress and change.
Number 2: Give them extra time and love. Your pets will experience a decrease in the amount of time you have for them. It is a fact! Set aside a dedicated time to spend time with your dog and cat. This doesn’t have to be separate from baby, you can involve baby in the process. The point is to ensure you are remembering to spend an appropriate amount of time giving them the attention they need. It’s good for their mental health, and it’s good for yours too!
Number 3: Identify problem areas, and set up safeguards to protect your animals. Urinary indiscretions are a problem area in my house. I set timers for my dog to remind myself to let her outside. If I don’t set myself reminders, I often forget to let her outside as regularly as she prefers. My cat likes to spray the highchair. It’s a territorial behavior (that highchair is coated in some pretty good smells!). To deter the behavior, I cover the highchair with a garbage bag when it’s not in use! Other examples might include-
- Use of baby gates to give your animals a safe space away from crawling babies or enthusiastic toddlers
- Give your cat a retreat space that is off limits to the kids. This should include all the resources they would desire- a place to rest, water, and a litter box
- If you have a barker, put a “text, don’t knock” sign on your door to prevent waking baby during a nap! I ask my friends to text me when they pull into my driveway, before they even open their door, so I can let the dog outside.
Number 4: Give them a job to do. A lot of dogs will be uncomfortable with nighttime waking, disruptions in routine, or even frequent feedings. Giving them a job to do during a feeding will help them know their purpose. For Example: When you sit down to feed the baby, tell them to grab a ball and take it to a target on the floor. Or you might direct them to a certain place by your feet for this time period. A small treat as a reward for “doing their job” will encourage them to have a behavior you prefer. Often dogs feel uncertain about their new role in the family as their people change their routine. Giving them a job to do helps them to know how to respond, and how to fulfill their role.
Number 5: Food. Ah food. Although this doesn’t apply to a new baby, once your baby starts joining the family to eat, your pets will start consuming more Calories. Watch that your dogs and cats aren’t gaining too much weight when they start cleaning up after little eaters. This is also a good time to refresh your knowledge of dangerous foods for animals. Grapes and raisins, garlic, onions, sugar free candy and gums, and chocolate are all foods to avoid. My husband and I joke that we have a “grape free” home. Our 2 year old loves grapes, and considers them the best treat, but it’s mostly because he only gets them at his friends houses or when we go for a picnic! When he can reliably not share his grapes with his dog friend, we can have grapes in the house again!
Number 6: They will bite. It’s a bit of a dark note, but it’s important. All dogs and cats will bite. Biting is a threshold. The nicest dogs and cats may have a higher threshold, and less patient animals may have a lower threshold, but it’s best to assume that they all can bite. If a walking toddler falls on the dog and startles the dog, the dog may bite. If the baby reaches out and pulls hair or an ear, the cat may bite. Familiarize yourself with dog and cat body language of stress, fear, and being cornered so you can understand if they are feeling the need to defend themselves. Start teaching kids from a young age how to interact with animals. Use baby gaits, leashes, and doors to prevent dogs and cats from getting in a situation that will make them uncomfortable. Never let kids be near dogs or cats while they are eating, chewing on a bone, playing with a toy, or sleeping.
Number 7: Remember dogs are pack animals. They do want to establish a pack order. While some dogs are more submissive than others, all dogs want to know where they fit in the pack. It’s usually obvious to dogs that they rank below the adults in the home. Dogs will often try to establish their rank over the kids in the home. Dogs often see kids as puppies, rather than family members who have authority over them. This is why we need to use caution with kids taking the dog’s food or toys. While they might not question this from an adult, they may try to “correct” a kid.
Number 6: Have patience for everyone. As I mentioned earlier, nothing is perfect. If being a parent has taught me anything, it’s to let go of the stress of trying to make everyone perfect and to embrace the chaos! We are all on a team, and we all have different strengths. The dog and cat’s strength is in providing you with love, comfort, and stress relief. The dog and cat probably don’t express strengths in diaper changing or cleaning up. Remember new parents have dogs who are the equivalent of senior citizens! Let’s give our animals the grace to treat them as grandparents to our kids, rather than co-caretakers. They deserve that grace!
Overwhelmed? Don’t be. Like everything, a little preparation and patience can go a long way!