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How to Prep a Pet for a New Baby

When my husband and I brought our newborn son home last fall, we were confident that nearly everyone in our lives was ready for the new arrival except for one: our cat. How he would react to playing second fiddle to a demanding infant was anyone’s guess. Several weeks later—after he used the floor of our closet as a litter box and defiantly marked his territory in our bed…with me and the baby in it—we got our answer: not great.

Though my initial thought was that he knew precisely what he was doing and why, it turns out that a bit more planning on our part might have saved us some strife—and a few cleaning bills.

“Pets are not spiteful,” says Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, staff doctor at the Animal Medical Center in New York City, “but we may interpret their territorial behavior as spite. Your cat may have been trying to communicate with your son and was asking him to leave the territory that he previously claimed.”

We got Hohenhaus, a mom and animal owner herself, to give us a few other points to keep in mind when prepping a pet for a new arrival.

The Allergy Equation

Though it might seem logical to rid your house of as much dog or cat hair as possible, its presence can actually be beneficial. Various studies have shown that exposing infants to pets in their early years can decrease instances of allergies and asthma. The findings piggyback on the hygiene hypothesis—the belief that avoiding early childhood exposure to irritants and infectious agents can actually stifle the development of the immune system.

The Litter Box

Toxoplasmosis—a disease caused by a parasite (toxoplasma gondii) that can cause serious fetal complications—is often spread via cat feces, which means pregnant pet owners get a pass when it comes to litter-box duties until the baby comes. While taking precautions is advised, don't do anything drastic. “I don’t recommend adding a new cat or kitten to the family while you are pregnant,” says Hohenhaus, “but there is no reason to rehome your current cats because of pregnancy.”

The Nursery

Warm, comfortable and cozy, nurseries are nearly irresistible to cats: They will want in. Be prepared to take some simple steps if you’d prefer it remains off limits. “If you don’t want your beautiful new nursery covered in cat hair, close the door,” says Hohenhaus. “One of my friends temporarily put a screen door on the nursery to keep her cats out, while allowing her to hear if the baby was crying.”

The Walks

Dogs most likely won’t have much interest in the nursery, but they might feel discombobulated when a stroller suddenly shows up on their daily walks—or when you take them out for a run. To help facilitate a seamless transition, Hohenhaus suggests practicing with an empty stroller to help get your pooch used to the additional equipment and over any nerves.

The Big Introduction

When it comes to introducing your pet to your new baby, it pays to strategize on homecoming day. “Have a helpful friend or family member with you who can take the baby for a few minutes,” says Hohenhaus. “Use that time to greet your pet, since your time to spend with him will be shorter than he anticipates. Once everyone is calmed down, introduce the pet and the baby to each other.”

To keep the good will flowing, offer a treat to your animal after the introduction: It will help him or her connect good thoughts with the new arrival. As your family gradually settles into a schedule, be sure to give the pet of the house a dose of baby-free time every day—whether that means a high-energy game of fetch with a dog or some quality lap time with a cat. And keep an eye on their reactions. No matter how confident you are that your animal won’t lash out at your little one, Hohenhaus recommends never leaving your pet and your baby alone together unsupervised. If problems arise, talk to your veterinarian.

“New babies inevitably cry and the sound can be unsettling to some pets,” she says. “If you notice your pet acting anxious when the baby is crying, give them a reward and a pat so he or she associates something good with the crying.”

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