When most people think of introducing pets to a new human family member, the first thing they usually think of is bringing home a new baby. Although it’s true this is a very common scenario for millions of families around the world, it’s not the only one when it comes to adding another human to the household.
It goes without saying that pets are an integral part of our families. Since most pets can live an average of 10 to 20 years (or up to 60 years for parrots!), it’s not at all surprising that they will experience many changes with us over the course of their lifetimes. Often these changes will include new humans who join our families, including babies, older adopted or foster children, elderly parents, roommates, or adult friends or relatives who may simply need a temporary place to stay for awhile.
Like us, pets can experience varying degrees of stress when faced with changes in their environment. If you’ll be adding a new human family member to your household in the near future, preparing your pet in advance will help them acclimate much more quickly to sharing their life with a new person.
Pets And New Human Family Members 101
There are plenty of ways to help set up both your pets and your new human family member for success, sometimes even before they meet each other. The more preparation you do beforehand, the better the chances for a smooth transition.
- For dogs, now is the time to work on basic training, if you haven’t already. Teach your dog the fundamentals: “sit”, “stay”, “down”, and “off” (which is different than “down”). If your dog is already trained, up the ante by reinforcing these commands until your dog is a pro! A well-trained dog is not only more polite around humans, they are also more confident and better able to focus around people they may not know very well. You can find a comprehensive list of easy-to-understand dog training videos from Victoria Stilwell’s Teacher’s Pet Series.
- If possible, allow your pets to meet the new human family member as many times as possible before they become a permanent resident in your home. Have the person give your pets treats whenever they interact with them, and allow them to play with your pets or join you on walks or quick trips in the car.
- Remember to fully explain the rules to new human family members ahead of time when it comes to interacting with your pets (for example, the cat stays indoors only, no treats between meals, the dog isn’t allowed on the bed). Also give your new family member helpful tips when it comes to interacting with your pets so they can begin forging a bond with them. If your dog loves belly rubs, or your cat gets stressed out whenever people try to pick her up, be sure to give the new member of your household a heads up. Any tips you can provide in advance will be much appreciated by both the pets and humans alike!
- Know your individual pets and their body language. This will telegraph to you ahead of time whenever your dog or cat is getting nervous, confused, unsure, or afraid.
- Keep your pets’ routines as normal as possible. Animals do best with a predictable routine, so try to keep walks, mealtimes, playtime, etc. as consistent as possible each day.
- While your pets are adjusting, try to avoid any additional stressful events, such as trips to the vet or groomer (unless you think they are ill, in which case don’t wait to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian).
- Don’t force your pet to do anything they don’t want to do, and let them adjust at their own pace. Try to make all interactions with the new human family member positive ones, and don’t force your pets (or your new person, for that matter) to interact if they don’t want to. All animals, like people, have their own pace when it comes to accepting newcomers.
- Be sure to always provide a safe zone for your pets where they can get away from stressful situations at any time. For dogs, this could be a crate or a separate room; for cats, it might be a cat tree in the corner of a room where they can retreat to the top level, or even a simple cardboard box with a hole cut out where they can hide.
- Remember to set aside plenty of one-on-one time with your pets, and give them lots of praise, love, and attention while they are adjusting. Most importantly, play with them daily! This goes for both dogs and cats.
Bringing Home Baby
Although it’s a common occurrence in many households, bringing home a new baby can be quite stressful for your pets, especially if they’ve never encountered a newborn baby before. Pets can also be very intuitive even when it comes to pregnancy – they know something different is happening, but they aren’t sure what.
Before the baby arrives, there are many things you can do to help lessen your pets’ anxiety. These can include getting your pet used to baby-related noises, like the sound of a newborn crying or the noise made by a mechanical infant swing. Playing recordings or using the baby equipment periodically while offering your pets treats can help make the experience positive for them.
Other tips include:
- Encouraging friends or co-workers with babies to visit your home (making sure to supervise all pet/infant interactions).
- Using a life-sized baby doll to help your pet get used to the real thing. Even though it may feel silly, try to carry the baby in your arms, pretend to change its diaper, and take the doll in a stroller with you when you walk your dog as often as possible.
- Installing a sturdy barrier, such as a pet gate, at the entrance to the baby’s room. This will allow your pets to see and hear everything that’s happening inside, while helping them maintain a safe distance until everyone feels more comfortable.
- Using double-sided sticky tape in the baby’s crib and on the changing table to discourage cats from jumping up onto these areas.
After the baby is born, but before you bring baby home, have another person take something with the baby’s scent on it (like a blanket) to your home for your pets to investigate ahead of time. When you arrive home with the baby, have someone else take the baby into another room while you calmly greet your pets and give them treats. Then once things settle down a bit, let your pets come into the room to sit near you and the baby, all the while talking calmly to them and offering treats. To keep their anxiety level low, and to make sure the experience is a positive one, always let them approach the new baby at their own pace and try not to force any interactions.
Elderly Family Members
When it comes to elderly family members joining your household, it’s important to make sure your pets are trained and are getting sufficient exercise so they aren’t tempted to jump on, or play roughly with, their new human family members. A pet who jumps up or gets underfoot can cause an older person who is already weak or unsteady on their feet to trip and fall, especially down stairs.
Also, as people age their skin becomes thinner, so even a small scratch for an elderly person can cause bleeding or an infection. Keeping your dog’s or cat’s nails trimmed regularly will help.
For the safety of both pets and new children family members, do your best to keep the children off the floor in the vicinity of your pets until everyone has time to adjust. Don’t allow children to approach your pets when they’re eating or sleeping. Since children can be loud and make sudden movements that can be very alarming to pets, be sure to watch your pets’ body language closely to make sure they’re not feeling threatened. Even the most gentle dog or cat may bite if they feel afraid.
Humans Confined To Wheelchairs Or With Medical Equipment
If possible, let pets smell and investigate wheelchairs and medical equipment as much as they like. Some medical equipment, such as oxygen tanks, can make noises that are scary to dogs and cats. Place treats and toys around the equipment to help lessen their anxiety.
A Little Preparation Goes A Long Way
Introducing pets to a new human family member can be stressful. But with a little preparation, sensitivity to your pet’s body language and point of view, and being proactive and reassuring with your reactions and demeanor, you can help smooth the transition and make sure that everyone adjusts and feels happy and secure in your “home sweet home.”
Do you have any other tips to share for introducing pets to a new human family member? Please share your stories with us in the comments below!