Animals are not ficus plants. Regardless of their demeanor, breed, or history, there’s always a certain level of unpredictability as they adapt to a new environment. The good news is that injuries in both kids and pets are easily preventable when the right precautions are observed.
This guide will help you ensure a smooth, incident-free transition for your entire family and establish the right habits for a meaningful bond with your new pet.
Covered in this guide
- 3 ground rules for integrating a new pet into your family
- What to expect from a new dog or cat
- Tips for setting up a safe space during the adjustment period
- Health considerations for you and your family
- Special considerations for newborns
- 4 essential safety rules to teach your children
- How to rescue a child from a dog attack
3 ground rules for integrating a new pet into your family
Rule 1: Observe the adjustment period
New pets always need time to adjust. It’s important to give your pet plenty of space and keep activity in your home as low-key as possible as they transition. The adjustment period could last anywhere from a few days to more than a month depending on your pet, but the 3-3-3 rule is a good starting point:
The 3-3-3 Rule
- It usually takes about 3 days for a pet to become comfortable with new surroundings. Don’t be alarmed if your pet won’t eat for the first couple of days — that’s a perfectly normal response to stress.
- After about 3 weeks, your pet has probably figured out the environment and begun to realize this might be their forever home. You’ll probably notice a bit more personality as your pet starts to let its guard down. This is also the time behavioral issues might start to pop up.
- By 3 months, your pet should be completely comfortable in your home and the foundation for a long-term bond is formed.
Don’t be discouraged if your pet takes longer to adjust than you expected. It’s not personal, and it will get better!
Rule 2: Closely supervise young children
We cover the specifics of child and pet safety further down this guide, but in general, you should never leave your child unattended with a new pet until the adjustment period is complete (a couple of weeks, at the very least). Children under 5 years of age should never be left alone with a pet. It doesn’t matter if your pet is a 5-year-old poodle that you bottle fed as a puppy: When children are injured by animals, it’s usually by the family pet.
Rule 3: Include your kids in care and training early on
It takes a bit more work if you have young children, but finding ways to incorporate the entire family is always worth it. Routine interaction and affection are necessary for a strong, long-term bond with a cat or dog. So giving your children age-appropriate responsibilities not only helps develop discipline, but it fosters a healthy relationship with the pet.
The scenario you want to avoid is a home where the pet is only bonded with one of the parents. A situation like that puts undeserved stress on everyone involved and increases the likelihood of behavioral issues and injuries.
What to expect when you bring a new pet home
Dogs and cats are creatures of habit. It doesn’t matter what happened in your pet’s previous life: Any type of change is stressful. Rescue dogs who lived for months (or years) in unstable situations will be understandably wary of being dropped into an entirely new environment.
Here are some of the most common behaviors that you might observe during the first three months with a new pet.
- Obvious shyness, hiding, or timid behavior
- Excessive or unexplained barking
- Marking their territory by urinating
- Possessiveness over people or objects
- Leash aggression/aggression with other dogs
- Avoidance or nervousness around strangers
All of these behaviors are perfectly normal, so don’t take it personally. Adjustment takes time.
Considerations for kittens and puppies
Remember, kittens and puppies are essentially human babies, except they can travel, destroy furniture, and pee and poo everywhere (well, that’s pretty consistent across species). The first three months with a human child is very different. Puppies will chew anything they can reach. Kittens have the ability to destroy your duvet by the time they’re a month old. Did you know some dogs can climb baby gates? The moral of the story is that preparing for a new puppy or kitten will save you a ton of headaches — especially if you have a newborn at home.
Puppies are also aggressive nibblers and nippers. Depending on their personality, it could take a lot of work to train that away, during which time you’ll probably obtain a number of small cuts. That’s just how it goes.
Remember: Playful nibbling can be incredibly scary for small children. Be consistent when disciplining your dog and make sure that everyone in your home participates.
Behavioral changes in your children
Just like a new brother or sister, new pets demand a certain level of attention in the beginning that might affect your relationship with an existing child. Be sensitive to that and incorporate your children in training as much as possible.
Tips for setting up a safe space during the adjustment period
Consider setting up space in a spare room or basement where your pet can be isolated — a place where introductions to things and new people are made on their terms. Some pets do just fine with the security of a kennel or pop-up pen. It’s all about trial and error. Observe your pet. Give them at least a day or so, and if it’s not working, try something else. Here are a few things to try:
- Choose a room with an open floor plan
- Give them an old rag or blanket that carries your family’s scent
- Shut the door to the room if the dog won’t stop barking or whining (this could also be a sign of the need to potty)
- If you’re using a crate, lay a blanket over top to create walls around the sides — this will help provide more security for your pet
Keep your dog in isolation for at least the first couple of days before allowing them to roam your house freely — especially if they’re extra anxious or scared.
The importance of scent
Pets are far more scent oriented than we are. Instead of buying your pet all new gear, consider giving them an old blanket, toy, or piece of clothing with your family’s scent. It can help make the introduction go more smoothly. (Breeders use this tactic to get new mates acquainted before they meet in person.)
Understanding the risks of a bad transition
Contrary to popular belief, no breed of cat or dog (namely Pitbulls) is inherently more aggressive than another. If animals attack, it’s almost always out of fear or (usually unintended) provocation. That means with a little discipline and preparation, pet-related injuries are incredibly preventable.
Let’s talk about what’s at stake. If your dog or cat severely injures your child, you’ll face a series of emotionally difficult challenges. First, there are medical bills, which could be costly depending on the injury. Next, consider the emotional trauma for your child, which could be long-lasting According to one study, over 25 percent of kids were diagnosed with PTSD three months after being hospitalized due to a dog attack.
On top of all that, it’ll be incredibly tough for you, the parent, not to harbor bitterness toward the animal, who may or may not have been acting out of provocation or fear. You might even have a strong urge to euthanize the animal. Nothing about that scenario is fair to you, your children, or the animal.
That’s why it’s incredibly important to take your pet’s adjustment period seriously. Setting proper, firm expectations from the get-go can make the difference between a life-long companion for your children and a horrific childhood memory.
Health considerations for your family
Both cats and dogs represent a variety of health risks for your family. The good news is that between a few simple habits and proper vaccination, these risks can be almost entirely eliminated.
Three simple pet safety habits:
- Don’t touch pee or poo, or anything contaminated by pee or poo
- Wash your hands after handling your pet, your pet’s equipment, or their poo or pee
- Keep your children’s utensils away from your pets
7 common infections that dogs and cats can pass to you and your children
If your new pet is vaccinated, it’s highly improbably that you’ll ever have to deal with one of these health issues. Still, it’s wise to be informed. Below are the 7 most common infections to watch out for. Younger children are the most likely to contract any one of them, but adults aren’t immune.
👉 Whenever your child sees a doctor, make sure to inform them of whether your child has a new pet, or has been in recent contact with a pet.
Campylobacter infection. Passed along by multiple types of pets, Campylobacter infections are contagious, especially among members of the same family and kids in childcare or preschools. People can become infected through contact with contaminated water, feces, undercooked meat, or unpasteurized milk.
Cat scratch fever. This happens when a person is bitten or scratched by a cat infected with Bartonella henselae bacteria. Symptoms include swollen and tender lymph nodes, fever, headaches, and tiredness. Doctors usually prescribe antibiotics right off the bat.
Rabies. Rabies is a serious illness caused by a virus that enters the body through a bite or wound contaminated by the saliva from an infected animal. Rabies in humans is rare in the US, and a vaccine is widely available to prevent our pets from getting rabies.
Ringworm. Ringworm is a skin infection caused by several types of fungi. People can contract ringworm by touching infected animals such as dogs and cats.
Toxocariasis. Toxocariasis is caused by the parasitic roundworm Toxocara, which can live in the intestines of both dogs and cats. Eggs from the worms are passed in pet feces, often contaminating soil where children play. If your child ingests some of the contaminated soil, the eggs hatch in the intestine, and the larvae spread to other organs, an infection known as visceral larva migrans. A doctor may prescribe drugs to kill the larvae.
Toxoplasmosis. This parasite can be found in cat feces. For most healthy people, the toxoplasma infection is usually symptomless and takes care of itself in a week’s time. In pregnant women, though, toxoplasmosis can be much more severe, causing miscarriage, premature births, and severe illness and blindness in newborns.
Infection from bites or scratches. Without proper cleaning, a bite from any type of animal can become infected and cause serious problems. Interestingly enough, cat bites tend to be the worst for secondary infections.
Special considerations for newborns
Cats can be a breathing hazard
Never allow a cat into any room where a baby or child is sleeping. Cat’s may settle on or near a baby’s face to nap, which could suffocate your child. As a precautionary measure, don’t allow a cat to play on any of your child’s equipment for play, relaxing, or sleeping. (You can use a pram net to keep cats out of your child’s crib.) Also, make sure any open windows in the nursery are cat-proof.
Dogs can become overly protective of babies and small children
Dogs are pack animals with a strong urge to protect smaller and weaker members of the group. As your pet acclimates to a newborn, it’s entirely possible they could become extremely possessive of your baby.
This can be annoying when you’re trying to show off your bundle of joy to family or friends, but it becomes a real problem when your dog attempts to protect the baby from you, the actual parent. What’s worse, some dogs decide it’s also their job to discipline your baby.
Depending on how strong your dog’s urge is, you may have to consider confining your pet while you interact with your child. Use every opportunity to let your pet watch you take care of your child. With enough socialization and training, dogs will eventually realize that your child’s not in any harm.
Below is a great tutorial from David Codr, a dog behaviorist and owner of Dog Gone Problems. In the video, he walks parents through the process of dealing with a dog who’s incredibly protective of a baby during mealtime.
4 essential safety rules to teach your children
Rule #1: Don’t tease your pet
According to a study published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, children usually start playing with the family dog more creatively between ages 2 ½ and 6. (If you’re a parent of a toddler, you already knew this.) But what exactly counts as teasing?
A preteen pretending to play fetch and hiding the ball behind their back is one thing, but teasing comes in a variety of forms and is often completely innocent. Your 3-year-old may just want to pat or kiss your dog on the top of the head, but even benign interactions with a little person can be terrifying to a pet. Family pets can be extremely forbearing, so you can’t always judge whether the animal is stressed or not based on their response. As a parent, it’s your job to supervise your children and teach them to treat pets gently.
Pets who share our homes are typically “incredibly tolerant” to young children’s pokes and prods. — Tania Lanfer, owner and head trainer of Cannon Dog Training
Unchecked teasing can lead to a hyper, unmannerly dog or cat who’s simply out of control. That stress not only diminishes your pet’s quality of life, but it can also lead to aggressive behaviors and tendencies that put your child at risk. Even a normally mild-mannered pet might attack and bite when pushed to their limit.
Below is a list of warning signs that could indicate teasing. If you observe any of these behaviors in your children, talk it out, and set new expectations.
Are my kids teasing my pet?
Here are 15 behaviors to watch for that could indicate teasing or animal cruelty
- Chasing a fleeing pet
- Locking a pet in a closet
- Leaving a pet outdoors
- Feeding a pet harmful human food, whether on purpose or by accident
- Feeding a pet human medications
- Putting rubber bands around a paw or neck
- Painting a pet’s body
- Putting a small animal in a washing machine, microwave or other appliance
- Staging fights between dogs or letting one animal antagonize another
- Deriving pleasure from seeing a frightened or suffering pet
- Responding to adult reprimands by secretly acting hostile toward the pet
- Burning an animal
- Teasing an animal with firecrackers
- Repeatedly showing off the inhumane handling of a pet to friends
- Putting an animal in dangerous situations
Rule #2: Don’t disturb pets while they are sleeping or eating
Ever heard the phrase “Let sleeping dogs lie?” This rule is incredibly important during your pet’s adjustment period, but it’s also a good rule to live by — and not just for safety reasons. Not only can dogs and cats become startled and attack when waking up from sleep (a form a redirected aggression), experts at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University suggest there’s potential for a negative psychological effect.
When it comes to food, dogs are natural resource guarders. Hoarding and protecting their food, space, and family members is a natural instinct that sometimes manifests itself in aggressive behavior. (This is one of the reasons many dog behaviorists advise against free-feeding your pet.) Cats aren’t immune to this instinct either, so it’s best to train your children to leave sleeping and eating dogs and cats alone. If a dog needs to be woken up, do so with a gentle voice — the same way you’d wake up your toddler.
Rule #3: Don’t attempt to break up a fight
Young children who love their pets may feel a strong desire to protect their friends, especially if the attacker is an outsider. Teach your child that no matter what’s going on, they should never intervene when two animals are fighting. Instead, they should back away slowly and notify an adult.
Rule #4: Don’t scream or run away from an aggressive dog
It’s tough to control yourself in a scary situation, but screaming and running can incite already aggressive animals. If your dog begins to growl and approach your child, the first thing they should do is avoid eye contact and walk away slowly. If the dog attacks, your child should curl up in a ball face-down on the ground and cover their face with their arms. Submission is the best way to cause a dog to lose interest.
Knowing the difference between an angry or scared pet is a skill that all children should know. Below are two fantastic body language guides from the RSPCA and a helpful video to show your children. We recommend printing the guides out and hanging them somewhere in your house. If you see aggressive behavior in your pet, call it out to your children and walk them through the cues that you observed while referencing the guide.
Dog body language guide
Cat body language guide
How to rescue a child from a dog attack
If your child is being attacked by a dog, your first move should be to grab the dog’s back legs and pull as hard and fast as you can. If pulling the back legs won’t cause the dog to release its bite, call 911 immediately. Once help is on the way, try hitting the dog on the back with a chair or heavy object or dumping a bunch of water on the dog.
Contrary to advice you’ve probably heard before, don’t try to jab the dog’s eyes or ears with your hands or fingers. Doing so puts your hands and fingers way too close to their mouth. You also shouldn’t punch or kick the dog unless there’s no other resort. If you need to hit the dog, you want your first attack to be as painful as possible. It’s easier to inflict more pain with a heavy or sharp object, and it puts a little distance between you and the dog as well.
👉 It’s important to remember that in a majority of cases, dogs only attack out of fear. Once you intervene, they’re likely to give up and run away. In the rare cases of severe dog attacks, the animal is usually either sick, abused, or starving.
What to do if your child is bitten by a dog
If your child is bitten by a dog:
- Attempt to calm your child
- If the skin has been broken, wash the area under cold running water.
- Apply an antiseptic and cover the bite with a clean bandage
- Take the child to the doctor, as a tetanus booster and antibiotics may be necessary.
- If a piece of flesh has been bitten off, call an ambulance.
- Control the bleeding by applying firm pressure to the wound using a sterile bandage or clean cloth, until the ambulance arrives.
- If your child is pale or drowsy, lie them down and raise their legs on a pillow or folded blanket- and call 911.
- Do not give your child any food or water.