With a national pet ownership statistic of 63 per cent, it's safe to say a lot of us will be bringing our babies into a home where a four-legged one will be anxiously greeting us at the door. Happily, the health benefits of raising a baby in such a home are not insignificant with research finding pets encourage development and physical activity, increase your child's self-esteem, bolster their immune system and reduce their anxiety.
That's not to say it's all positive of course; according to the Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne, around 13,000 a year attend emergency departments across the country for dog-bite related injuries. Those who are most at risk? Children under the age of five. So it begs the question, how do you teach the two to live harmoniously together, free of risk of injury or illness? It seems early planning is everything.
Prepping your pet
Spoiling your fur children rotten in the lead-up to the birth? You're certainly not alone, but it's an approach that can lead to problems further down the track. The truth is, although your dog or cat will eventually (however begrudgingly) accept any new house rules you're laying down (no more jumping up on the couch or sleeping on the bed), they're not going to be thrilled with them - especially if they make the connection that the changes are associated with the arrival of the new baby.
To make things easier on the family, Dr Lewis Kirkham, veterinarian and author of Tell Your Dog You're Pregnant: An essential guide for dog owners who are expecting a baby (www.babyandpet.com.au), recommends making changes early to give your pet a chance to adapt accordingly. "It's also a great way of working out what's happening with your pet," says Dr Kirkham. "If he or she is not coping with the changes in the house prior to the baby arriving, you'll know early on that's it's not the presence of the actual baby causing issues once baby is home, but rather the changes associated with baby's arrival." To help prepare your pet, Dr Kirkham recommends altering your pets' sleeping areas (if need be) months in advance and setting realistic routines you'd like them to get used to. Consider playing noises such as a baby crying and loud, repetitious toy sounds so that they get used to them, and give your pets an opportunity to sniff around the baby's room. Pets with behavioural issues should either be taken to obedience training or be taught commands. "At the very least make sure he or she understands (and obeys) sit, stay, come, drop it and go to your mat," advises Dr Kirkham.
Changes to the home
The main thing you’ll have to think about is how you want to separate the baby areas from the pet zones. "Given that dog and cat hair allergies are very common in Australian families, it's best to keep your baby's bedroom a pet-free zone entirely," says Dr Meredith Ward, neonatologist at Sydney's Prince of Wales Hospital. "Not only will it prevent eczema and asthma in allergic kids, it's also important for safety reasons while your baby is sleeping." Baby gates or an internal screen door on the nursery can help keep inquisitive dogs and cats out of the room, while installing motion sensor detectors on any room where baby will sleep will give you extra peace of mind. "It's not about excluding your pet, but accepting that there will be times when you need to ensure the baby and pet can't interact when you cannot supervise them adequately," says Dr Kirkham.
Elsewhere in the house, use play pens and additional baby gates liberally (they can be purchased cheaply on Gumtree or at your local market) to assist with controlled interactions and to restrict access to your pet's sleeping, feeding and play areas. It's not such a problem during the newborn phase, but once bub gets crawling - watch out!
First impressions count for a lot - even in the animal kingdom, so put careful thought into how you're going to introduce the two the day you come home from hospital. If you have a dog, it's recommended you get someone to exercise her that morning to burn off all that excess energy, and if possible, arrange for someone else to hold the baby as you enter the house. Don't forget - your pooch hasn't seen you for several days so will alternate between being excited to see you and miffed that someone else is stealing your attention.
Even if the initial introduction has gone well, bonding between the two will take time, says Dr Kirkham. "Owners often feel like they have to rush the process along but they have a lifetime to be friends, he says.
"To get them on their way however, it's important to ensure that good things happen for your pet whenever baby is near." Rewards for good behaviour around the baby can be given in the form of food or a one-on-one play, but keep a look out for anything that might constitute bad behaviour as well.
"Owners also need to be well-educated on their pets' subtle body language to know they are not actually comfortable with the baby," says Kirkham. "For example, many pets see a dog yawning as being tired when this is often a sign that a dog is actually anxious in the situation and needs to be removed or given more personal space." Choosing a more 'family-friendly' breed helps, says Dr Ward. "But the reality is that any dog or cat can injure a baby depending on circumstances." She recommends adult supervision as the best precaution in injury prevention and says babies should be taught how to handle pets gently and learn boundaries and discipline as they grow into toddlers. "Babies learn how to interact with pets from watching their parents so being a good role model yourself is important."