A friend sent me a message today and shared what I can only describe as a very personal struggle. I believe she chose to confide in me because she knows that I’m passionate about helping dogs and their humans live better lives together. But the situation she described was not even on my radar screen.
My friend and her husband had recently started their family. About a year ago she gave birth to their first child. Then, just three months ago, they were blessed with twins. Needless to say, my friend has her hands full. Prior to becoming pregnant, she and her husband had always considered their 8-year-old Catahoula-mix and her 12-year-old feline sidekick their kids.
They adored their pets. They were also proactive in researching how to properly and safely introduce their babies to their pets. They wanted to make it as stress-free as possible for everyone involved.
What they were not prepared for is how my friend’s postpartum hormones would make her feel toward their beloved dog and cat. As she describes it, “Every scratch, water slurp, and food crunch set my blood boiling, and I hated myself for it.” If the dog would sneeze or shake her head, it would invariably wake one or more of the babies, and this would invoke extreme anger in my friend.
In addition to the anger, she also felt crushing guilt and an overwhelming sadness; she knew it wasn’t the animals’ fault, and she knew they didn’t understand why she was acting differently toward them. She referred to them as “my first babies and ones who have been so loyal, despite my constant shoves to try to get them to leave me alone.”
What is Postpartum Depression?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 11 to 20 percent of women who give birth each year have symptoms of postpartum depression. If a median percentage of the women responsible for the 4 million live births in the United States annually experienced PPD, it would amount to approximately 600,000 suffering moms each year in the United States alone. In addition to those who are formally diagnosed with PPD, every new mom experiences a lack of sleep and hormonal surges, which can affect how she reacts toward those around her.
One website with help for women with PPD describes the malady this way: “In addition to sadness, postpartum depression symptoms can also include anxiety, frustration, anger, and rage. You may have a tendency to be impatient, reactive, and volatile. You might have feelings of resentment or hatred toward your baby or other members of your household. These emotions are completely normal as a mother adjusts hormonally, mentally, and emotionally to the new demands of first-time or even fourth-time motherhood.” While the website does mention “other members of your household,” in my research I couldn’t find any references to pets.
As a trainer and behavior consultant, I am always ready to provide all sorts of helpful information and internet links on the subject of bringing home a new baby to meet the dog. But I can honestly say that I never considered the emotional and hormonal component of the new mom and how it would affect her relationship with her pets.
I am thankful that more and more women are willing to openly share their experiences with postpartum depression. We need to do a better job at considering every family member in the home when discussing this important topic. After reading my friend’s message, I wondered if this phenomenon contributes to the re-homing of a significant number of pets once couples add human children to their families.
I’m also grateful to my friend for bringing this subject to my attention. With this knowledge I can better inform and educate my clients in the future. Because of her bravery, many more women will understand that what they are feeling toward their cherished pets is normal and they aren’t alone.
To learn more about PPD, visit postpartum.net or call (800) 944-4PPD. And see the suggestions in the sidebar (right) for ways to immediately improve matters for you and your family pets at this trying time.
8 Ways to Improve Your Postpartum Depression (When Living with Pets)
The following are tips and ideas for moms who are experiencing PPD, and whose pets are adding to their stress or depression.
1. Reduce Pet Noise
Dog and cat ID tags are vital to pet safety; however, their constant jingling can be annoying. This is easy to fix. Products that keep tags quiet include neoprene pouches that contain the tags, keeping them quiet, such as the QuietSpot. Another alternative are tags that slide onto collars, rather than hanging on collar rings. Another good option are collars that have the owners’ phone numbers stitched into the fabric; these are are available from a number of companies, including Orvis and In the Company of Dogs.
2. Try Soothing Music
Classical music has been proven to be soothing for both infants and dogs. Try playing some in your house and you might even find that it has a calming effect on you, too. One example sold specifically for dogs is “Through a Dog’s Ear“.
3. Enlist Help
Most new moms have friends, family, and neighbors who offer to help in any way they can. Why not ask if they would be willing to walk your dog or play a game of fetch with her? Making sure your dog gets adequate (or extra) exercise will help everyone in the house live together more peacefully.
4. Two words: Dog Walker
Hiring a professional dog walker is another great option. It ensures your dog receives the attention and exercise she needs and gives you a break from having to manage every family member at once. (See “Finding a Reliable Dog Walker, ” WDJ March 2014.)
5. Two more: Dog Daycare!
Check to see if there is a reputable doggy daycare facility nearby. My recommendation would be to bring your dog there a few times prior to the baby’s arrival. These “trial runs” will show you if your dog enjoys and is not overwhelmed by this type of environment. Not all dogs are suitable or comfortable in this type of setting. But for those who are, it can be extremely beneficial to the whole family.
6. Include Your Dog in Activities
Be careful not to always exclude your pets when you spend time with the new baby. This could cause your pets to develop a negative association toward the child. Instead, provide a frozen, stuffed Kong or similar food toy for your dog while you tend to the baby in the same room. Making good and yummy stuff happen for the dog in the baby’s presence is always the best idea.
7. Make a Special Place for Your Dog
Start early, introducing your dog to a crate or exercise pen (x-pen) to create your dog’s own special suite where all her favorite toys and bedding are available. Make great things happen in this area by hiding and/or dropping surprise treats here randomly. She will happily go to her suite when you need to separate her from the baby.
8. Renew the Relationship with Your Dog
When you feel a bit more grounded in your daily routine with the new baby, try to renew your relationship with your dog by having a special “pup date” once every week or two. Take a walk, just the two of you (while the baby is being watched by a family member or friend). Toss her ball or flying disc in the backyard. Practice teaching her a simple trick like “Sit pretty” or “Spin” and reward her with her favorite treats. This can be a much-needed break from the baby for both you and your dog.
Tiffany Lovell, CPDT-KA, is the owner of Cold Nose College, Space Coast, in Brevard County, Florida. She lives with a menagerie of beloved pets and a wonderful, animal-loving husband.