Prepping for Two: Your Newborn and Your Pet

Maybe your due date is approaching—a date that you and your cat might be anticipating for very different reasons. Or perhaps you’ve just brought your little one home when that breed of puppy you’ve been seeking for years suddenly becomes available. Or if you’re like my spouse and I, you saw our homebound time during the COVID-19 crisis as ideal for welcoming a new four-legged arrival.

Whatever the reason, many people find that they will simultaneously be parenting their infant and one or more pets. (And why not? More joy for all!) Under the right circumstances, this is absolutely doable and even has advantages. However, with the joys come responsibilities and precautions so that everyone can stay safe and healthy.

Pets: How Many, How Wonderful

Although surveys differ as to just how many households have pets, most have an estimate of over 50%. The great majority of these are dogs and cats (fish are a distant third, according to one survey), although certainly nontraditional pets are growing in popularity.

Having a dog or cat can be a wonderful experience for a young child. Especially in this era of social distancing, they can provide companionship. As child and pet age, the child can learn responsibility. Also, getting pets used to kids is beneficial should the pet be out and about and encounter others. (And vice versa, naturally!)

Preparing Pet and Baby

Needless to say, there are precautions if you’re going to have both a pet and a baby or young child at home. Whether or not you have a pet now, start with your veterinarian, who is your best advisor on how your pet might fit in with a new little human. There’s going to be a difference in the risk of bringing a baby to a home with an elderly basset hound versus one with a goldendoodle puppy! (The latter I know from personal experience—I have no doubt that our 5-month old goldendoodle, Olivia, would have her head right in a bassinet at the blink of an eye!) You may want to pass on nontraditional pets for now.

Regardless of the pet you have or are going to get, there are things that you can do in advance to acclimatize her to babyhood. Baby smells (such as a blanket from the nursery) and sounds (crying, cooing, etc.) are always a good introduction.

However, nothing is a substitute for safety. Never leave a baby unattended in the presence of a pet! No matter how well-behaved the pet has historically been, or even how high the crib or bassinet is, pet-related calamities still happen. I’ve seen scratches on freshly-arrived newborns when a cat has climbed right into a bassinet.

Another thing you can consider, if not already done, is spaying or neutering your pet. Aside from health benefits and unwanted pregnancies, this helps aggression in male pets and mood swings in females. Also, make sure all pets are up to date on their health care, including immunizations.

Pets and Older Babies

As infants age, it’s important to teach (and model) good behavior around pets. This is a time when older siblings’ good pet practices can show the youngest person in the family what he should do. (Around age 5 is when children can generally properly care for pets.) Also, since it’s desirable to start reading to children by age 6 months, can you find picture books that show people interacting with pets?

As your little one becomes more mobile, one of the best lessons you can teach her is to how to approach a pet. Most people know not to approach animals that are showing signs of aggression, such as growling or hissing. But it’s also important to teach a child to leave a pet who is sleeping, feeding or caring for their young. A pet that comes to a child with a curious look and a lot of sniffing is probably one that is ready to be approached.

Always supervise all pet interactions when young children are involved. And if the worst happens? Run all bites and scratches by your pediatrician. Although most kids will heal just fine, there are risks to be aware of. Rabies, while rare, is still seen, and tetanus and other bacterial infections need to be addressed. Some wounds may need special treatment. If you do need to call, have all information on your pet (or the owner’s pet, if it’s not yours), including immunizations, ready.

No question, you need to take some care where babies, young children, and pets are concerned. A few simple precautions as your household expands can mean lots of happiness and few hassles for years to come.

Stan Sack
Dr. Stan Sack has 29 years’ experience as a primary care pediatrician in Massachusetts and Florida. A medical writer since 2015, he enjoys blogging on topics that are on parents’ minds but are covered less often in books and on websites. He lives in the Florida Keys with his family and enjoys healthy cooking, fitness activities and singing in his spare time.

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