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Children and Pets

If you are an animal lover as I am, chances are you had a fur-baby before you introduced a human baby into your family. Whether you birth, adopt or foster a new child it is a time of excitement, anxiety and stress for both you the parent and your pet(s). Some dogs and cats may have a difficult time adjusting to the new addition to the family. Having a plan and doing some preparation will help.

Has your pet been exposed previously to children? How did your animal respond when it was around the children? Being able to answer these questions will help to determine how your pet may deal with your child being brought home. My dog Rue was a rescue, and we had no background information on her. She was good with my nieces and nephews; however, they were older when she was adopted. We had no idea how she would react with our daughter. It turns out we have some issues with anxiety and very mild aggression. Rue’s anxiety started when our daughter became mobile and wanting to pet/hug her dogs.

A good tool to have in your back pocket is the knowledge how to develop a desensitization and counterconditioning program for your pet. This program can be started before the arrival of your child and will help your pet to cope with the new addition to the family. There must also be a means of physically and verbally controlling your pet(s) so that safety can be insured when the child and pet are together. A child should never be left with any pet(s) alone, unsupervised by an adult. Use the time before the child’s arrival to make changes gradual for your pet(s). You may need to make changes to your pet’s schedule- feeding, exercise and attention these should be completed before the child comes home (ex. If you will be walking your dog with a stroller, do so ahead of to get the dog used to it). Crate training your dog may become a helpful tool – it provides a safe, quiet space for your dog to retreat too during a stressful time. We used a baby gate when our daughter was on the move. It allowed our daughter to be safe on one side and Rue on the other side out of reach, that helped reduce her anxiety.

Cats can also have anxiety due to the child’s arrival. Fear and anxiety to the sights and sounds of the new child are possible, but adapting to changes in the household are often the most trying for cats (i.e. bringing in new furniture, changing feeding schedule, etc.) To avoid cat’s from marking new furniture, the first few introductions should be well supervised. Synthetic pheromones are available to help keep your cat calm and help prevent marking.

When you finally bring home your new bundle of joy, progress slowly with introductions and changes. Keep your pet’s nails trimmed. Supervise all interactions between pet and child. Keep the pet(s) out the child’s room during nap and sleeping times. Reward your pet(s) for being obedient and having relaxed behaviour in the presence of the child. Every effort should be made to allow the pet into the room for food, play and affection while the child is present. Your goal is to teach your pet that “good things” are most likely to happen in the presence of the child vs always being separated while the child is present.

Should aggression arise, an immediate decision on whether to keep and work with your pet or remove it must be made. Aggression can be motivated by fear, dominance, redirected, playful or predatory aggression. Most cases of aggression require extensive precautions to prevent injuries and a great deal of time, effort and commitment to try and correct. Seek advice from your DVM if you have concerns with aggressive pet(s).

Children must also be taught to be respectful and how to interact with their pet(s) safely. Children have to be taught how to meet/greet and handle other animals. They must be made aware that strange pets may not behave in the same way their family pet(s). Children should always ask permission to approach/pet a strange pet, from the pet’s owner.

Written by Kris Hansen, RVT

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