Signs Your Pet Is Stressed About Your New Baby & What To Do About It
And how to establish a peaceable kingdom before your baby comes home from the hospital.
Whether you’ve been trying for a while or the positive pregnancy test came as a surprise, after the initial “wow” factor of finding out you’re pregnant wears off, practical questions tend to flood in. Where will the baby sleep? What car seat should we get? Why don’t my pants fit anymore? And, for families with pets at home, how is our beloved pet going to feel about sharing attention with a baby? You’re not wrong to be wondering about this, and if you start to prepare your pet for the arrival of a baby during pregnancy, you’re on the right track, says Valli Parthasarathy, PhD, DVM, DACVB, a veterinary behaviorist and owner of Synergy Behavior Solutions in Portland, Oregon. Early preparation is key to making a smooth transition, and she has tips about how and when to start helping your pet adjust. But, if you didn’t think to do that and now find yourself wondering if your cat or dog is stressed out by your baby or toddler, you’re not alone and we’ve got tips for you, too.
How to help your pet adjust to a new baby
If you know that you’re expecting, it’s a great idea to plan to work with somebody to help your pet get adjusted to that change early in the pregnancy, says Parthasarathy, not, say, a week before your due date, because there’s only so much time to prep. And while many dogs and cats do adjust well to a baby joining the family, you should still be cautious. Don’t blindly trust the voice in your head that tells you your pet will be fine with a baby, because you simply don’t know, she says, until after a baby comes. “Even if you have a dog who's been around kids before, living with a kid is very different than a kid who comes to visit and then goes away, and it’s the same with cats,” she explains. “They may enjoy having kids over for a visit, but having a kid there 24/7 is a very different thing.”
She recommends that pregnant people with pets work with experienced reward-based trainers to help prepare their pets for the adjustments ahead. In fact, there are many things that you can work on during pregnancy. “A lot of times, the pet is kind of the ‘child’ of the house until the first baby comes. And that's a really big adjustment for the pet, but we can start helping them with that adjustment before the baby arrives.” What kinds of things can you work on during pregnancy to help reduce stress when the baby comes? Parthasarathy suggests expectant families work on things like getting their pet used to:
- Having baby gates up
- Having less attention
- Perhaps not being allowed on the sofa or other furniture anymore
- Perhaps not being allowed to sleep in the bed anymore and adjusting to new sleeping arrangements
- Feeling comfortable with strollers being around
“I'll often have clients who have their babies due in a month, and they're worried about how their pet is going to be adjusting to the baby,” she says. “While it’s good that they're worried, and have come to seek my help, but we have a much tighter timeframe than we would if they came to us months earlier.”
Classic signs that a pet is stressed by a child or baby
It can be surprisingly tricky to tell if your pet is stressed out, and the way it presents might surprise you a bit. Behaviors that can seem affectionate can actually sometimes indicate stress, and she encourages parents to take signs of stress or strain seriously. Any dog can bite, she reminds, and every cat can scratch.
Tell tale signs of stress or fear in a pet include:
- If the pet is hiding all the time
- The pet is avoiding a particular room (the baby’s room, for example)
- The pet startles when the baby is there
- The pet is showing really intense interest in the baby or child (anxiety can present this way, she cautions)
- If your cat has their ears back
- If your dog tucks their tail
- If a cat’s tail is puffy
- If your dog is barking and or lunges
“Sometimes we've had pets who are just following the baby around really intensely to the point where clients feel uncomfortable,” she explains, adding that if you start seeing any behaviors like that, get help as soon as possible rather than waiting for it to build into more aggressive behavior.
Ideally, good preparation before a baby or child joins your family will prevent or soothe any stress related to the transition. But, if there is some stress, the goal is for pet owners to catch signs of stress in a pet before that stress evolves into aggressive behaviors. Aggressive behaviors, she explains, may include:
- Showing teeth
- Hard-eyed stares
“Even if it's not causing physical damage, it's an indication that dog or cat is uncomfortable,” she explains. “Tolerance has its limits. Those non-aggressive warnings, those non-biting warning signs, can evolve into injury later on.” If an animal is expressing signs of stress, she urges families to be aware that separation — at least for a while — may be essential, and seeking help is a must.
Is it true that some breeds are better “family dogs” than others?
Yes and no, says Parthasarathy. Much like humans, every dog is a bit different, regardless of breed. “It’s really important to work with the individual that's in front of you, because for every breed, there's variation of behavior within that breed,” she explains. Golden retrievers, the stereotypical family dog, can be wonderful or, she says, they sometimes can present extreme aggressive behavior towards people. While there may be breed predispositions, it’s most important to consider each situation on its own terms, rather than relying on generalizations.
What to do if your pet is stressed out by your baby or child
Working with a pet behavior expert is key, she says, to figuring out your next steps if your pet is stressed out by your baby or child. A veterinary behaviorist, like Parthasarathy, will consider your individual situation and animal, investigating what their behaviors are and making sure that they are putting strong management tools in place. “By management, I mean the use of baby gates, the use of crates or pens or separation so that when the baby and the dog are not being actively supervised by the person or by the adult, they're fully separated so that things don't happen without you knowing about it.”
Over time, with help, hopefully your beloved pet and your child can find a good, loving, stress-free rhythm together.
Valli Parthasarathy, PhD, DVM, DACVB, veterinary behaviorist and owner of Synergy Behavior Solutions in Portland, Oregon