Ensuring a behaviorally healthy pet-child relationship - Veterinary Medicine
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Ensuring a behaviorally healthy pet-child relationship
Behavior problems in pets are never a picnic, but they become even more important to address when children are in the home. Pass these tips on to your clients who are introducing a baby into their home or adding a pet to the family.


Using a program of affection control (also called nothing in life is free, no free lunch, and learn to earn) in which a dog learns to perform a calm, controlled behavior such as "sit" or "down" before it gets anything (e.g. petting, play, doors opened, invited onto furniture, food, treats) can be very useful. These programs can be presented to expectant parents as good practice for when they will be teaching their children to say "Please" if they just think of sitting as a dog's way of saying "Please."

Cat-specific changes

For cat owners, preparing for a new baby often involves moving food dishes and litter boxes. Owners often want to move litter boxes to out-of-the-way locations such as basements, small closets, or laundry rooms. Owners also want to switch from open litter boxes to covered ones in an attempt to limit children's access to the boxes, despite the fact that most cats prefer open boxes. To have an open litter box that is accessible to a cat but not a child, owners could put litter boxes in child-free rooms (e.g. home offices) and install a pet door or prop the door to the room open wide enough to allow only a cat to get inside. Regardless of the changes made, if owners wait until the baby is born to make litter box changes, they may assume that any housesoiling problems that develop have occurred because of the baby, when the problem is actually the new litter box location or type of litter box.

Cat owners should also prepare comfortable areas, such as cat trees, window seats, or even folded towels on top of cabinets or on bookshelves, where cats can get away from eager toddlers.

Expectant parents may be worried about cat hair in the nursery or that the cat will "suck the life out of the baby." Although the latter is an old wives' tale, there is a slim risk of a not-so-slim cat smothering a newborn infant if the cat tries to cuddle with the baby. Solutions to this problem include putting up crib tents (netting tents that stretch over cribs, keeping the baby in and all else out) or installing a screen door in the nursery so the parents can still hear the baby, but curious cats can't enter.

If expectant parents have concerns about an overly friendly or needy cat jumping into their laps while they are holding a baby, a similar approach to what is recommended for dogs can be used. Before the baby is born, the owners should teach the cat to wait for an invitation to hop up by standing up and dumping the cat out of their laps every time the cat jumps up on its own. The cat can then be taught a jump-up command, possibly using a treat as a lure, so it learns that there are times when it is OK to sit in a person's lap.


When a new mother first comes home and greets her pets after the baby is born, she should be empty-handed. Advise owners to find a time when they're not busy with the baby and can devote all their attention to the pets, especially dogs, before introducing them to the baby. Make sure at least two adults are present—one to supervise the baby and the other to supervise the pets. Dogs should be wearing leashes, but it may be acceptable to have them drag the leashes. Owners shouldn't force an introduction, just let the pets be around the baby.

Owners should allow their pets to politely sniff at the baby, but if the pets seem interested in lots of sniffing or licking, the owners should draw their attention away with another activity such as playing with toys. If a dog seems overly fearful or rambunctious or shows any aggression, the adult supervising the dog should calmly, without scolding or yelling at the dog, pick up the leash and walk the dog away from the baby.


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