Tuesday, November 26, 2013

How to help your fur baby deal with a human baby

Image courtesy Shutterstock.
It is often said that people treat their animals as surrogate children. I’m not going to “unpack” that statement here, loaded as it is, but I will confess I possibly fit into that category and I’m happy to be there. However, what if you have “fur kids” and then actually have human offspring? Life can get a bit complicated. A number of close friends (including some vets) have struggled with balancing the needs of the dependent humans and non-humans in their lives. No judgement here.

SAT interviewed behavior vet Dr Lewis Kirkham about his work and his new book, “Tell Your Dog You’rePregnant”.

Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do? 

I am veterinarian that has had many years of experience in a variety of practices, both in Australia and the United Kingdom. I have further qualifications in animal behaviour and provide private counselling and behavioural advice for pet owners and zoos. I divide my time between my family, private veterinary practice, companion and exotic animal behaviour referrals and online veterinary support.

Dr Lewis Kirkham and friends.
What moved you to write a book about introducing your dog to the new baby in your life?

Many modern couples are having “fur kids” prior to having a baby. These pampered pets enjoy the highest quality of life. I began seeing more and more couples for behaviour consults because they were expecting a baby and worried about how they would all cope with a new baby in the family. I was also visiting families who already had their baby and were having significant issues as a direct result of not preparing their dog for the changes that a new baby brings. I felt that if I could advise expectant parents about how to prepare their dog, many subsequent problems could be avoided. I was also concerned with the number of dogs that are unfortunately re-homed or relegated to the backyard just because the owners are having a baby.

Babies can be a terrifying prospect to other humans in your household, let alone animals who may have no idea some new flatmates are on the way. These gorgeous bubs belong to vet nurse Kim, who doesn't have a dog but did have to tell her cats, python and Siamese fighting fish that she was pregnant...with TWINS.
As a non-parent I was fascinated to read that children between the age of 2 and 5 years old may have some negative reactions to the homecoming of a new baby including more demanding behaviour and regression in toilet training. Are we expecting too much of our dogs to suddenly adapt to a new being in the house?

All dogs have individual temperaments and some will cope easily with the transition to a larger family, while other dogs can become quite distressed which can lead to a variety of behavioural problems, such as house soiling and barking. The key is to start preparing early for the new baby to minimise sudden changes to the household.

The book comes with a CD of baby related sounds. 
It is often said that pets are treated like children, but that changes when a baby comes along. In your experience, how long does it take for a dog to adapt to new household rules such as not sleeping in the bed?

It can take several months for a dog to adapt to new household routines, therefore changes should be made gradually to reduce anxiety in all family members.

You provide a CD of baby noises and the sounds of baby toys. Why is it important for dogs to hear these sounds before the real baby arrives?

There are several important reasons why dogs should be accustomed to a variety of different sounds that a baby makes before the real baby arrives: to decrease a dog’s reactivity to the sounds; to ensure the dog isn’t scared of the sound of a baby; and to gauge the dog’s body language when listening to the sounds. Two tracks of toy sounds are also included on the CD to help the dog prepare for the sounds of the ‘new’ toys that are likely to arrive. Also some dogs get quite excited with the sounds of squeaky toys and we do not want the baby to have a squeaky toy and the dog thinks it is playtime and goes to grab it off the baby.

You advocate never leaving dogs and babies alone. What if you have an exceptionally well-trained dog with a lovely temperament?

All dogs have teeth and all have the ability to bite. This can be due to numerous different reasons – and these are discussed within the book. But, that statistics tell us that 70 % of dog bites towards children are by a dog that is known to the child (i.e. family or friends dog). So it is not a stray dog running down the street. Also, scarily, two-thirds of dogs that bite children, the owner says that the dog ‘has never bitten before’! This may be the well-trained dog with a lovely temperament you mention. Supervision and separation when not supervised is a must.

The twins sleeping. Contrary to popular belief, babies spend a small proportion of their time sleeping and much of it making noises that can be unsettling to pets (and, lets face it, quite often other humans, although I should add that Kim's bubs are perfect).
When should expectant parents call on the services of a veterinarian with training in animal behaviour?

Expectant parents should get help from an appropriate veterinarian if they notice any behaviour that worries them. Undesirable behaviours may include things such as jumping up, barking at the front door and more serious problems including concerning body language, resource guarding and aggression. The book outlines more deeply areas when owners may need further help.

Is it true that the Queen enjoyed your book?

It is true that The Queen has a copy of my book. I received a lovely letter thanking me for it – hopefully the CD was playing in Buckingham Palace at one stage to help prepare the Royal Corgies [for the impending birth of Prince George]! It is important for all dog-owning members of a family to prepare their dogs if they are planning to have a newborn baby visit their home.

What tips would you give veterinarians and vet students asked to provide advice to pet owners who are expecting their first child?

Vets and vet students should tell owners to read my book ;) Owners should start preparing their dog as early as possible for the transition to a larger family by changing their household routines, work on any problem behaviours occurring now, learning to read their dog’s body language, and getting their dog accustomed to the sounds of a baby. If they own cats they should also look out for the cat version; Tell Your Cat You’rePregnant book.

Thanks Dr Kirkham for the tips. I love the image of the Corgis sitting next to the fireplace in Buckingham Palace with their earbuds in.