Roll over Fido, baby's home

Pets: New parents turn to training programs to ease the stress animals feel when a newborn joins the family.

August 22, 2005|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

When Clarissa Barnes returned home from the hospital with newborn daughter Madeline, she and her husband, Michael, felt assured that their four pet dogs were ready for the family's rearranged hierarchy.

There would be no growling at the tiny stranger. Shoes would not be chewed as an animal-to-human signal of jealousy or confusion. And the hounds would not leave an unpleasant note on the floor of the new baby's nursery.

Also, the couple would not have to give away their beloved pets, a wrenching move often made by new parents afraid to expose their infant to an animal's unpredictable reaction to the new member of the pack.

The Barneses' pets - Pandora, a chow; Daphney, a Labrador mix; Oliver the collie; and Darwin the golden retriever - were prepped weeks before Madeline's arrival Aug. 8 at her Linthicum home. The couple's tool: a family and pet education program, complete with sights, sounds and even smells to familiarize the resident animals with Madeline.

It is a strategy, animal advocates say, that is starting to catch on around the country.

"Bringing a newborn into a home with an unprepared pet can be dangerous," said Aileen Gabbey, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "But it's certainly not dangerous if you take time to train the pet that there's a new addition to the house."

"A newborn can be confusing to the animal," said Gabbey. "The pet will wonder how they fit in the new hierarchy. They will see that baby gets allowed on the couch while they don't. They are thinking, `Before that little person came here, I got all the attention.'"

Because these types of programs enable families to keep their pets when newborns arrive in a household, organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States have seen a slight increase in animal-training strategies, several found on the Internet.

One local program that has received high marks was created by Jan Kilby, a community health nurse at Franklin Square Hospital Center in Baltimore County.

From recorded baby coos and cries played for the animals to a comprehensive booklet, the Pet Prep program helps owners train and prepare dogs and cats for changes to their social order. The packet also includes lotions, powders and a new diaper that dogs and cats can get to know before a newborn arrives.

"Soon after the baby came home, I felt four warm noses indicating they wanted to say hello to the baby," Barnes said of her four rescued pets. "Their bodies were relaxed, tongues out, tails wagging and all the while looking at me for approval. Yes, they are sending lots of positive signals about Madeline."

The couple chose Pet Prep over similar products offered nationwide on the Internet.

"It worked well for us," Barnes said.

Barnes is an educated critic. She is the director of volunteers and education at the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She and her husband have two other children, ages 12 and 4. She tried a similar pet-preparation program with the 4-year-old, but it was not as comprehensive, she said.

In many cases, uninformed new parents wind up giving away their pets.

In 2004, 102 dogs, puppies, cats and kittens were turned into the SPCA shelter on Falls Road because of a new baby in the home. Another 54 animals were turned over to the agency because of a pregnant owner. Unknown are the number of pets given away to friends or relatives because of an arriving newborn.

Nationally, hundreds of pets are given away rather than trained for the arrival of an infant, according to the Center for Disease Control, which tracks incidents such as dog bites.

"Your pet is really your first baby, an important part of your family," said Kilby, who consulted with several veterinarians and professional pet trainers when she wrote her booklet for Franklin Square's program three years ago.

Rules and myths

While any house pet - dog, cat, snake, lizard or turtle - can pose dangers to infants, common sense guides most decisions when dealing with babies and animals. Rule No. 1, Kilby said, is never leave a baby or toddler alone with a pet because the infant's motions or noises can confuse dogs and cats.

"The best thing to do is let the pet into the new nursery to check things out while you are present," Kilby said. "But otherwise, animals should not be allowed into a baby's room. The animal can comprehend with gentle training that the nursery is usually off-limits."

Cats, she writes in her booklet, may show possessiveness or aggression by urinating on or scratching at the baby items.

Stories of cats being drawn to the smell of milk on a baby's breath and then sucking the air from the baby's lungs and killing the infant are myth, Kilby says. Still, cats should also be kept from the nursery because the animals can jump into a crib and snuggle with the baby, causing possible breathing problems, she said.

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