Children and Pets

Amid all the preparations involved with introducing a child into your home, it is easy to forget that your pets are going to need to make some adjustments, too. Pets depend on a predictable daily routine and any change in this routine can be stressful. Fortunately, there are ways to prepare your pet for the new addition. Planning ahead can diminish stress and enhance joy for everyone involved.

What can we do to prepare for the arrival of a baby?

If you have experienced any behavioral concerns with your pet in the past, it is important to address these issues before a new baby arrives. Behaviors such as demanding, incomplete house training, excessive excitement with visitors, nighttime wakefulness, or distress related to being left alone can become more challenging to manage when there is a baby in the home. This is a great time to consult with a behavior professional.

"Pets and babies should never be left unsupervised together, not even for a second."

Note: Pets and babies should never be left unsupervised together, not even for a second. Your pet will not recognize the baby as a little person. Dogs and cats are predators, and it can take up to 3 months before they treat a human baby as a family member. If you have any concerns about aggressive or predatory behavior, consult with a veterinary behaviorist before the baby arrives. It is important to have an assessment, as well as a treatment and management strategy, to ensure safety.

Consider some of the changes you may need to make to your pet’s routine.

Sleeping arrangements

If the baby will sleep in your pet’s favorite room, be sure to acclimate your pet to alternative comfortable sleeping quarters. Set up the nursery in advance and if you are planning to keep the pet out of the room, access should be denied before the baby’s arrival.


There may be times when your pet must be separated from you as you tend to your baby. Practice confining your pet behind a gate or in a separate room. As your baby becomes more mobile, your pet will need a safe place to go without being grabbed, and your baby will need freedom to roll, crawl, and move without interference from a boisterous pet.

Play time

Babies usually drive the schedule. Your pet’s playtime may no longer be predictable. Introduce a variable play and exercise schedule before the baby arrives. Design a daily routine that provides exercise as well as interactive social time and alone time (see handout “Using Predictability, Scheduling, and Enrichment to Train Your Dog” for details). If your dog enjoys daily walks, it may be helpful to introduce a dog walker before the baby’s arrival.

Sharing attention

You will no longer be able to provide undivided attention on demand. It can be helpful to teach your pet to settle when asked. Practice having your dog or cat rest on a mat or cozy bed while you are relaxing. Use treats to reward quiet behavior and deliver attention and playtime randomly, at your convenience. If your pet appears restless, remind them to “wait your turn” and reward the quiet, patient response.

Are there more specific preparations I can make closer to the baby’s arrival?

Some pets might be frightened by the sights, sounds, or odors associated with a baby. Periodically play recordings of baby sounds (see handout “Behavior Management Products for Dogs” and “Behavior Management Products for Cats” for details). Try replicating activities associated with childcare, such as carrying a baby around the house and changing diapers, using a baby doll wrapped in a blanket. Include any products you’ll use, to familiarize your pet with the new odors. Introduce equipment such as strollers and take your dog for a walk while you wheel the stroller or baby carriage.

If your pet is fearful or overly excited about any of these preparations, consult with a behavior professional who can design an effective behavior modification program. For example, pairing a new noise with a pleasant activity or treat can often create a positive emotional response.

What should be done when the baby arrives?

This reminder is worth repeating: pets and babies should never be left unsupervised together, not even for a second. Keep your pet out of the baby’s room during nap and sleeping times.

Babies can easily be injured by curious, friendly dogs and cats. Keep your pet’s nails well trimmed. Initially, you may need to use a barrier to prevent your pet from pouncing or jumping up on you or the baby. A helper may be able to hold your dog or cat on a leash.

Reward your pet for settling patiently while you tend to the baby. Be sure to provide your pet with daily, quality private time - play, exercise, and affection. If you have a helper to keep the baby safe, bring your baby along for some of the pet’s happy time. For instance, take a walk together with the baby, or play while the child is nearby in a playpen, someone’s arms, or a high chair.

As your child develops and becomes more active, the foundational skills you worked on to prepare for the baby will come in handy. If you notice signs of fear or aggression at any time, or if your pet does not eagerly join you for their favorite activities, then it is time to seek professional help.

How can I teach my pet to behave appropriately around young children?

Children can be scary for many pets. Children move quickly and make loud noises. If a child is in your future, it is best to socialize your pet with children from the start. Socialization is most effective when animals are young, but it is never too late to begin exposure to new things.

Most cats meet children inside the home. Help your cat adjust to the sounds and activity of children by providing perches at various levels so that your cat can relax and observe. Use a barrier such as a tall gate if you are concerned the cat might injure the child or if the child might chase the cat. If you have a helper, one person can play with the cat while the other person watches the child. If your cat is very social, invite the child to present a treat or toss a toy for the cat. Observe for signs of fear—hissing, puffy tail, or rapidly flicking tail. If your cat is uncomfortable, bring them to a quiet, safe room to help them relax. Take it slow. Your cat’s personality will determine how involved they will be with a child. The main goal is to help your cat feel safe.

Since dogs often go to public places, they are able to meet and observe children from early on. To socialize your dog or puppy, start by keeping your dog a comfortable distance away from children. Ask your dog to sit quietly and take treats from you. If your dog is playful, intersperse some fun games such as tug. If your dog becomes overly excited by a child’s activity, help them settle by using treats. They will learn to relax while children are running and know that play time will come later. The dog’s games should be restricted to fetch and training games. Dogs should never be permitted to chase children.

"Do not allow a child to approach or grab your pet. Let your pet volunteer to engage."

If your dog is generally friendly, you may allow your dog to receive treats from children. Do not allow children to pet your dog until your dog can calmly receive pets from adults, as children are easily frightened when dogs jump on them or mouth them.

Inside the home, supervise children carefully. Your dog (or cat) can learn to sit for treats and may be able to do other fun tricks for the children. Arrange fun activities that can be shared, such as outdoor walks on leash and fetch games.

Do not allow a child to approach or grab your pet. Let your pet volunteer to engage. If your pet shows signs of over-excitement or fear, remove them from the area so they can relax. Even friendly animals can cause injuries by accident.

Are there any resources to help us prepare our pet for our new child?

Individualized preparation and coaching from a Family Paws Certified Consultant can be extremely helpful. These specially certified trainers have completed advanced continuing education on the specific topic of integrating children and pets successfully.

How can I teach my children to be safe around pets?

There are important guidelines you can follow to reduce the risk of injury.

  • Most importantly, ensure that a responsible adult always supervises children and pets. That supervision should usually continue until children are at least 10 years old, but your child’s personality will ultimately determine whether they can be left alone with a family pet.
  • Teach children your pet’s language. They should understand that when a dog growls or a cat hisses, it is time to move away. One great reference is “Doggy Do’s and Don’ts”, a book written by Dr. Emily Levine, a board-certified behaviorist.
  • A child should never pursue a pet that is trying to walk away. Instead, children should be taught to call the pet over for an interaction. It is not safe to reach for a pet that is resting. Similarly, children should not reach for pets that have anything in their possession, whether food, toys, or stolen objects. If your pet steals your child’s toy, your child should immediately call an adult who can help them get their toy back.
  • Teach children to allow their pet to eat without being disturbed. If necessary, feed your pet behind a baby gate.
  • Children can be taught how to pat gently. Pets do not enjoy being grabbed or hugged. Small children are generally not coordinated enough to safely lift and carry dogs and cats. If the pet squirms and falls, they could be injured, or they could panic and injure your child while trying to escape.
  • Whenever possible, play sessions and training should include the children, with the supervision of a parent. You can begin when the dog is a puppy by attending family-friendly puppy classes.
  • Teach children that unfamiliar pets may not behave in the same way as their family pet. A simple rule is that a child should never approach another family’s pet without being given permission. If they are permitted, then they should approach slowly and avoid reaching for the head and face. Teach your child to leave the pet alone if the pet is afraid--shaking, cowering, tucking their tail, or trying to escape.
  • Your child could encounter a loose dog that initiates an unfriendly approach. It is tempting for a child to run away from a dog that rushes toward them, particularly if the dog is barking. Instead, teach your child to avoid direct eye contact, remain quiet, and stand still like a tree, holding their arms against their body. It is important to stand quietly, without screaming or shouting. If the child is on the ground, they should curl up and cover their head and ears with their arms and fists and remain still until the dog moves away.

What should I do if my pet behaves aggressively toward my child?

Aggressive behavior can occur for many reasons. Animals may show aggression when they are frightened, when they experience pain, or when they perceive that they are about to lose a valuable resource such as food or a safe resting space. Cats may display aggression by growling, hissing, swatting, or biting. Dogs may growl, snap, or bite.

If your pet behaves aggressively, first calmly separate your pet from your child. Do not scold your pet. Any attempt to confront or punish your pet will introduce new emotions, including fear, that can make it more difficult to keep your child safe in the future.

As soon as possible, arrange a consultation with a skilled behavior professional such as a veterinary behaviorist (DACVB) or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB). There may be a simple explanation for the aggressive response and the prognosis may be very good with treatment and management. Alternatively, a behavior expert may determine that the risk of a future injury is high and for your pet and child to live safely together, you will need a specific, rigid, management program. For example, you may be advised to use physical barriers on a permanent basis.