Lots of families expecting their first baby already consider a pet their "baby."
They convince themselves that Fido or Fluffy will get the same attention as always when their real baby arrives. Of course, that doesn't happen.
Not only are some pets not equipped to handle the smelly, screaming new arrival, but their previously predictable lifestyle is suddenly up for grabs. When pet meets baby under these circumstances, the pet loses. But it doesn't need to be that way, according to a new brochure, "Pet Meets Baby," available for free online from the American Humane Assn. at http://www.americanhumane.org/petmeetsbaby.
AHA national ambassador Victoria Stilwell, host of Animal Planet's "It's Me or the Dog," agrees that "If you start preparing at least two or three months before the baby is born, odds are you will prevent problems."
"Prevention is everything," says Dr. Patricia Olson, DVM, scientific advisor for the AHA. Her own daughter, Dr. Amy Olson, a critical care and pulmonary specialist at National Jewish Hospital in Denver, recently arrived home to greet her golden retriever, Eloise, holding newborn twins Sophie and Jacob.
"We brought home blankets and clothes the twins had been swaddled in to first introduce Eloise to the smells of their new family members," Amy Olson says.
When Stilwell brought her daughter home, she happened to be between dogs, but she didn't forget about Angelica, the cat.
"My husband carried the baby in, and I went to greet my cat," she said.
Stilwell advises, "Start out by exposing your pet to the idea of you carrying around a strange bundle in your arms by using a doll. Talk to the doll as you would a baby."
And begin to teach your pet the "rules." The pet can sniff at the bundle in your arms, but jumping up is not allowed. And give your dog or cat praise for an appropriately relaxed response.
"Often, pets get upset about the high-pitched wailing of a crying baby," adds Stilwell.
Months before the baby arrives is the ideal time to prepare the pet. Download crying baby sounds and play them at a very low level. If the pet is totally unperturbed, pump up the volume slightly. If a pet is shows any anxiety, tone things down.
Eventually, you can play the crying baby audio so loud it may bother you more than your pet as the dog or cat eats dinner, creating a positive association. A fussing baby will ultimately become your pet's dinner-time music.
Thinking ahead, if your cat's litter box/dog's toy box is in what will be the baby's room, move your pet's belongings elsewhere months before the baby arrives.
"Most important, never, ever leave a pet with a baby or toddler (without adult supervision), not even to go the bathroom or to take a shower," Stilwell adds. "You're gone — and boom, in two seconds, it (a bite) happens."
Certified pet dog trainer Colleen Pelar, author of "Living with Kids and Dogs: Without Losing Your Mind" (C and R Publishing, Woodridge, Va., 2005; $16.95), says most dog bites are inflicted on children and occur on the face. Most often, the person bitten is a family member. Pelar believes most such bites can be avoided.
"Well, it begins with adult supervision," adds Pelar. "But we also have to pay better attention to what the pets are telling us. We tend to look at the child's intention. The 4-year-old who hugs the cat may mean it nicely. But that may not matter to the cat, who perceives it differently. I see instances of adults who are in the room supervising but just don't see it (aggression) coming."
Patricia Olson adds, "From the American Humane Assn. perspective, we want to protect children and animals so they can be safe, healthy and happy. We know children should never be left alone with pets, but we also know the value of pets in a child's development. Keeping a family intact is important. And families with young children are at greater risk to relinquish a pet. This is what we want to avoid, and believe the information in the brochure will help."
When Amy Olson came home from the hospital with her premature twins, she felt the weight of the world on her shoulders. Eloise, the family dog, might have added to the stress, but "it turned out Eloise was so wonderful, she was a part of solution," she says.
However, as the twins grew older, began eating solid food and dropping bit of it on the floor, Eloise became the family vacuum. Now on a diet, Eloise has that special relationship dogs and cats can have with children.
Grandmother Patricia Olson says, "It just warms my heart to see them all together."