Helping a New Dog or Cat Adjust to Family Life

Here are a few things to consider before you add a furry new member to your family.

Adding a new cat or dog to the family is something all children dream of. Once you deem your kiddo responsible enough to take care of a pet, there are still a few things to consider before you head to the pet store.

Is your family ready for a new furry friend?

Think long-term.

While it can be hard to look beyond the cuteness in the heat of the moment, families should make sure they can commit to what it means to have a pet long term, including medical costs, training and busy, changing family schedules, says Emily Klehm, CEO of the South Suburban Humaen Society and chair of the Chicagoland Lifesaving Coalition, a consortium of animal welfare organizations in the Chicago area.

“Some folks expect a dog in a box. They just want to unbox their new pet and have it be perfect,” she says. That’s rarely the case; pets need to get comfortable with their new family and the family needs time to understand their new family member’s evolving personality, she says.

Her best advice: Do the research to understand what it means to add a pet to your life, then give the new pet time to adjust.

It also helps to consider your family’s lifestyle and how a new pet will fit into that lifestyle, Klehm says. Active breeds of dogs are good if families are outside a lot, but if your life is sedentary or spent mainly inside, a border collie or working breed is not going to be a good fit.

Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions at the shelter, she says. For those on the fence about whether a pet works in their lives, Klehm suggests looking for a pet in foster care instead of a shelter because the foster family can provide so much more information about their behavior in a home setting.

Helping your pet settle into a routine

We checked in with Sydney Bartson Queen, animal behavior counselor, of the ASPCA Behavioral Sciences Team, for tips to keep pets happy as they acclimate to family life.

Queen says “your new dog or cat may be left confused and lonely once everyone is rushing out the door instead of spending time at home. While you and your family are home [on summer vacation or on weekends], start to prepare your pet now and designate time for them to spend enjoyable time alone throughout the day.”

She suggests families start by taking a walk or doing yard work without your pet. Start small and gradually increase the time you are apart from them.

Create happier alone time

    • Create a cozy, inviting place for your dog or cat to nap away from all the activity of remote work and school. You can put on some TV for auditory and visual stimulation, soothing music or the radio. Cats, in particular, really enjoy watching TV shows that feature animals.
    • When giving your pet time away from you, offer your dog tasty chews, such as bully sticks, tendons, scapulas and cheek rolls, to keep him busy.
    • There are many free game apps for cats to play with on their own. You can also find battery-operated toys that may keep your cat busy and happy on her own.
    • If you notice that your pet is showing signs of distress when you leave him alone, contact a behavior professional for assistance. Many are offering virtual appointments.

Boredom busters for dogs

    • Use a snuffle mat for offering treats/dry food or stuff a puzzle toy with food like plain yogurt, peanut butter or their meal for a fun challenge. Cardboard boxes, paper towel rolls, PVC pipes with holes drilled into the sides, paper bags with food or plastic jugs can be used as well.
    • Set up a scavenger hunt so your pup can put her nose to work. Hide treats around a room in partial view.
    • Engage your dog in short, empowering training exercises such as touching his nose to your hand or a particular object or learning “sit,” “down” and “come.” If your pup already knows the basics, look for trick training books or videos to learn more advanced skills like “spin” or “roll over.”

Boredom busters for cats

    • Offer their meals or treats out of food puzzle toys.
    • Provide objects for them to explore, such as cardboard boxes, paper shopping bags (with the handles cut off), bottle caps, packing paper and toys that encourage them to investigate.
    • Train your cat to learn useful behaviors and fun tricks, like “sit,” “come,” “hand target” (touchingtheir nose to your hand), “shake” and “fetch.”
    • Position bird and squirrel feeders outside windows where your cat can observe animals coming and going during the day or even try playing videos of birds and squirrels on your TV, computer or phone.

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Metro Parent Editorial Team
Metro Parent Editorial Team
Since 1986, the Metro Parent editorial team is trained to be the go-to source for metro Detroit families, offering a rich blend of expert advice, compelling stories, and the top local activities for kids. Renowned for their award-winning content, the team of editors and writers are dedicated to enriching family life by connecting parents with the finest resources and experiences our community has to offer.

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