Children and Pets
The birth of a baby or the adoption of a new child is associated with a great deal of anxiety, excitement, and stress for not only the family, but also the family pet. Some cats can have a difficult time adjusting to these changes, especially if this is your first child, but preparation and planning will help.
How is my pet likely to respond to the new arrival?
There are so many different variables that it is impossible to accurately predict the way that any pet might get along with children. However, there are considerations that give some insight into how your pet might react, such as:
- How much exposure has your pet had previously to children?
- How has your pet reacted when it has been exposed?
- How agitated is your pet by schedule and social changes?
The most serious concern would be with a pet that has previously reacted aggressively or fearfully with children. If there have been prior problems, you should consult with a veterinary behaviorist to determine which situations have previously led to aggression, and the safest way, if any, to make the transition. If the pet’s previous problems were with a specific child, a specific age group or under specific circumstances, it may be possible to design a program that emphasizes safety and works to adapt the pet gradually to stimuli and situations that are similar to the previous situations in which the pet was aggressive to a child. A desensitization and counter-conditioning program may improve or resolve the pet’s anxiety prior to the arrival of the child (see Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning). In addition, there must be a means for physically and verbally controlling the pet so that safety can be insured when the child and pet are together.
"Without any prior experience,
it is difficult to predict how the cat may react."
The next most serious concern is the pet that has had little or no exposure to young children or babies. Without any prior experience, it is difficult to predict how the cat may react. A lack of early socialization to children may lead to some initial anxiety or fear associated with the sights, sounds and odors of the new child. If there are no unpleasant experiences when the child first arrives, and the first few introductions are made positive, there may be no problems. Even if a pet has shown no previous problems when interacting with children, keeping all introductions positive will help to get the relationship between your pet and your new child off to a good start.
One final concern is how your pet will respond to the growth and development of your child. As your child progresses from being carried to one that rolls, crawls, and begins to walk, and so on through childhood, some pets may have trouble adapting to one or more of these changes. Fear, social challenges, possessive displays, and playful behaviors could result in aggression. Anxiety or fear could lead to anorexia, compulsive disorders (e.g., flank sucking, acral lick dermatitis), or destructiveness (e.g., house soiling, marking, chewing, digging). Remember, regardless of how your pet may respond, a cat and a young child should never be left alone unsupervised.
What can we do to prepare for the new arrival?
Behavior problems (destructiveness, house soiling, compulsive disorders, increased demands for attention, generalized anxiety) may not develop directly because of the arrival of the child, but rather from the changes in the household associated with the new arrival. With 9 months to prepare for a baby’s arrival, the best way to minimize problems and help the pet to cope is to make changes gradually so that they have been completed prior to the arrival of the child. Consider any changes that you may need to make in the pet’s schedule, housing, play, exercise or attention, so that adjustments can begin to be made well before the baby’s arrival. Design a daily routine of social times and alone times that can be practically maintained after the baby arrives (see Enrichment, Predictability, and Scheduling). Set up the nursery in advance and if the pet is to be kept out of the room, access should be denied before the child’s arrival. If your intention is to allow your pet to continue to enter the room when supervised, begin to accompany your pet into the nursery so that it can adapt to the new odors and new setup. The cat should be allowed to investigate the baby’s room, blankets, and new furniture, and praised or given a small food treat so that it can develop a positive association with each of these new cues.
"Any existing behavior problems
should be resolved
before the arrival of your baby."
Is there anything special I should do for my cat to prepare for the arrival of a child?
For cats, the most important adaptation is to the changes that will be needed in the cat’s home. Although fear and anxiety to the sights and sounds of a new baby are possible, adapting to changes in the household are often the most trying for cats. For example, obtaining new furniture, altering the cat’s feeding, sleeping, elimination or play areas, and trying to keep the cat out of certain locations such as the crib, should all be considered before the arrival of the baby. To reduce the chances of the cat marking new furniture, the first few introductions to the new areas should be well supervised. Once your cat has investigated and rubbed against the new furniture, spraying is far less likely. Similarly, when the crib or cradle is first set up, the cat may wish to mark the area, or investigate, or even to sleep in the crib. Booby-trapping areas (see Behavior Management Products and Prevention and Punishment of Undesirable Behavior) can teach the cat to stay away from the areas of concern well before the baby arrives; in many situations, synthetic pheromones (Feliway®) (see Fears, Phobias, and Anxiety) can help keep the cat calm and prevent spraying.
"For cats, the most important adaptation
is to the changes that will be needed in the cat's home."
Remember, each of these techniques is intended to help your cat adapt to changes in the household or lifestyle before the arrival of the baby. Once the baby arrives, there will be far less time to deal with the needs of your cat, and there will be additional variables to which your cat will need to adapt. Even if your cat does begin to exhibit fear or anxiety during this pre-arrival training, such anxiety will not be associated with the presence of the child. Your cat will have no reason to develop animosity to the new child.
What should be done when the baby arrives?
Progress gradually, avoid any situations that might lead to fear, anxiety or discomfort in the baby’s presence and make all associations and experiences in the baby’s presence positive. Maintain or even increase the amount and type of training, exercise, and play. When necessary, use your pre-trained confinement area when you need to concentrate on the baby without interruption.
Even a curious and affectionate pet may have some problems adjusting to the new arrival. Jumping up in greeting when the baby is being carried, barking during the baby’s sleep or nap times, raiding the diaper pail, licking the baby’s face, or cuddling up to sleep against an infant who is still unable to shift position are just a few of the concerns and potential problems that pet owners may need to deal with. Keep your pet’s nails well trimmed. Supervise all interactions between the pet and baby. Keep the pet out of the baby’s room during nap and sleeping times.
"Every effort should be made
to allow the pet into the room for food,
play or affection when the baby is present."
The most important aspect of retraining is to reward the pet for obedient and relaxed behavior in the presence of the child. In many households, there will be less time and energy available for the pet. While focused on the child, or attending to the chores associated with parenthood, the pet may be ignored, disciplined for approaching too close, or confined to a different area of the home. Your pet may still receive its play, exercise, affection, food and attention, but often not until the baby is finally asleep or is under the care of some other family member. Many pets soon learn that the presence of the baby is a time for inattention, confinement, or even punishment, while the absence of the baby is a cue for “good things” to happen. This must be reversed. Every effort should be made to allow the pet into the room for food, play or affection when the baby is present. Feed the pet when the baby is being fed, or have another family member give affection to the pet, play with the pet, or do some reward training (stay, go to your mat) when the child is in the room.
What should be done if aggression arises?
Such behavior is very upsetting, regardless of its reasons. An immediate decision on whether to keep and work with the pet or remove it from the home must be made. Cat aggression toward children can be fear-induced, redirected, territorial, or play/predatory. For most aggression cases, especially those directed toward children, the guidance and advice of a behaviorist is strongly suggested since it will be necessary to make an accurate diagnosis, determine the prognosis (the chances of safe and effective treatment) and guide you through a treatment program. Although some cases may be treated quickly and safely, most cases require extensive precautions to prevent injuries and a great deal of time, effort and commitment. Aggressive cats should be confined away from small children except when they are in a carrier, on a leash and harness, or well supervised and either calm or otherwise occupied with food or toys.
How can I teach my children to be safe around pets?
Although there are no rules that will guarantee safety, there are important guidelines that can be followed to reduce the chances of problems and the risk of injury. Children must be taught how to interact with and handle their family pet including how to approach, pat or lift small pets. Wherever possible, play sessions and training should include the children with the supervision of a parent.
"Children must also be taught
that strange pets may not
behave in the same way as their family pet."
Children must also be taught that strange pets may not behave in the same way as their family pet. A simple rule is that the child should NEVER approach another family’s pet without being given permission and then to approach slowly and avoid reaching for the head and face. Children should be taught to avoid pets entirely if they are displaying any signs that might indicate fearfulness (shaking, ears back, tail between legs, crouch, trying to escape) or aggression (growling, showing teeth, barking, hair standing on end). Although most children would be tempted to run away from an aggressive cat, they should be taught to stand still like a tree, with the arms against the body, and avoid eye contact and yelling or screaming. If the child is on the ground they should curl up and cover their head and ears with their arms and fists, and remain still until the cat moves away. Any threatening cat or bite should be immediately reported to an adult.
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