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Stay? Give Away? How to Introduce Pets to Your New Addition

Posted by Lara Salahi  February 11, 2013 09:19 AM

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My first baby was born years before January this year. I’m talking about my furbaby – my cat. Over the last two years, she has consumed most of the photo space on my phone. And if my husband didn’t put the kibosh on my obsession, I would've probably been a cat lady. So when we announced to family members we were expecting our first “real” baby, I remember my mother asking us how we thought our cat was going to handle the new addition.It was like asking how our first born was going to react to getting a sister.

But really, it wasn't a question. By asking, my mother was telling. She might as well have come right out and said, “I think you’re going to have to give the cat away.”

Never. Gonna. Happen.

She’s never owned a pet, so I don’t think she quite gets that pet-owner bond. She feared the shedding would bother the baby, the cat would jump in the crib, or even accidently scratch the baby. I can’t blame my mother. Her concern did put the thought in my head: With all the time and energy we’d be focusing on a newborn, how would our furbaby react?

During a wellness visit to the veterinarian early in my pregnancy, the veterinarian mentioned that even a pregnancy may bring added stress to pets. Plenty of other families have successfully helped their pet transition to their growing family. Giving away our cat was not an option for me. While our veterinarian and my mother meant well with the warning, there are plenty of ways to help both cats and dogs prepare for the new addition.

I needed a third opinion.

Enter Dr. Meg Whelan, a veterinarian and co-director of emergency critical care service at Angell Animal Medical Center. Whelan is pregnant with her first child and is currently helping her pets adjust to a soon-to-be new member of the family.

In most cases, a pet learns to get along well with babies, Whelan told me. But it’s hard to predict which pets will be stressed and exactly how they will express that stress.

“Animals can get startled by swinging furniture and crying babies,” said Whelan.

While every pet is different, some can also feel sidelined by the shift in attention they once got from their owner, she said.

“Those that are more fearful and stress prone are most likely to be affected,” said Whelan. “More withdrawn animals may not be as affected.”

In some ways, my mother was right. Before my daughter was born, I would walk into the nursery and find the cat asleep in the crib or curled up on the changing table. She would scratch the play pen like it was her sisal pole. She’s a cat. Cats enjoy cozy sleep spots and scratching things. I know. But she had never before scratched our furniture and I feared she’d jump right into the crib with baby.

Fortunately, those actions were short lived and stopped once we brought baby home. Whelan has taken her own advice to ease her pets into her impending arrival. I also took Whelan’s advice to help our cat adjust.

“Slowly start to set up things so it’s not a traumatic change,” said Whelan.

The nursery was a six-month work in progress and was completed weeks in advance of baby’s arrival. Although it felt like a slow transformation, the stages it took to set up the furniture gave our pet the chance to smell each new piece and get used to the new setup.

“If you can bring the baby’s scent home with you before you bring baby home, that would be a good way for your pet to recognize a new person,” said Whelan.

While I was in the hospital recovering, my husband brought home some swaddling blankets that our daughter wore and placed them in the nursery to introduce her scent. Once baby came home, our cat did the routine new-person sniffing, but seemed uninterested in the baby and no longer seemed interested in sniffing around the nursery or using the crib or changing table as a sleeping spot.

After baby comes home, any sense of routine or normalcy disappears. There seems to be no difference between night and day (since you’re likely to be awake nearly every hour). Exhaustion sets in. Housework piles up.

Try your best not to neglect your pet, says Whelan.

Isolating a pet by keeping them locked up or away from a certain section of the house may contribute to the animal’s added stress.

“Feed them in the same place at same time,” she said. “If they eat or walk at a certain time, try to keep it up.”

Whelan said she’s also made sure to trim her cat’s nails more often to prevent scratching.

Dogs may be easier to work with than cats. Since dogs can be trained, teaching them to stay away from certain areas or objects such as baby toys and pacifiers may be easier to do.

“If you think one week prior you think you can change your pet, it’s not going to work. It’s going to take months to change behavior,” said Whelan. “It’s never too early to train.”

And as for shedding? The only concern with pet hair is if the baby already has respiratory problems. Still, it doesn’t hurt to clear the home of pet hair when you see it, and make sure the pet is well groomed and brushed out.

Now, I admit, even after following all of these tidbits, I do feel like I’ve brushed our cat aside. Baby has taken most of my attention, and for at least the first week home I wasn’t able to bend to pet or pick up the cat. Lately she hasn’t been feeling the love.

But it’s all temporary, and in the meantime, she's been better behaved than we anticipated. So, sorry mom, Gatto the cat is here to stay!

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Lara Salahi is an award-winning multimedia journalist whose specialty is reporting health and medical stories. She has worked in local, network, and cable television, international print, and documentary film. She More »

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