Cat on moving boxes
A change, they say, will do you good. But without proper preparation, the same might not be true for the four-legged members of your family. Each year, about five to seven million pets nationwide are relinquished to shelters, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). In many cases, this decision is reached when families are facing a major lifestyle change, such as moving, going through a divorce or preparing for a new baby.

Moving Out

You may be moving on up, but don’t let your pet become a victim of circumstance. Moving is one of the top 10 reasons dogs and cats are given up by their owners, according to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, but it’s also one of the easiest changes to prepare for. Here are four simple steps to making the transition as smooth as possible:

  • Check — and double-check — the pet policy. Before deciding on a home or apartment, be sure that your pet will receive a warm welcome from the new neighbors or landlord. There might be limits on the number, weight or breed of permitted pets. And homeowners, take heed: Pet restrictions are not exclusive to apartment complexes — some municipalities and condominium associations have a limit on the number of pets allowed in a residence.
  • Prepare your pets. Before the day of the big move, start preparing your pet for new experiences. For example, a few days before you start packing, leave the boxes out so your pet gets used to the idea of having new things in her house. If your pet is not accustomed to travel, take this time to introduce her to her carrier by offering food rewards and praise and taking short trips that end on a positive note.
  • Give them space. Cat lovers can make their feline friends more comfortable in the new home by offering them a temporary room of their own. This space should be pet-proofed and filled with the cats’ litterboxes, beds and favorite toys. When the cats come out of hiding and seem to be adjusting, you can then begin to let them explore more of the house, one room at a time.
  • Monitor their progress. Although some behaviors, such as hiding and showing mild hesitation, are normal in the first few days of changing residences, be on the lookout for signs that your pet might be in distress or suffering from severe anxiety. For example, if your pet isn’t eating, drinking or using the litterbox, those are some signs that she may be very upset or sick and should be taken to the veterinarian.

Dealing With Divorce

Breaking up is hard to do, especially when children and pets are involved. Divorces are emotional for all parties, and the resulting disruption in the household can be extremely upsetting and confusing to animals. Here are some common divorce scenarios and ways each can be made easier for your pet:

  • When a spouse moves out: To prepare a pet for when a family member leaves the household, try to keep that person’s comings and goings uneventful. In other words, there should not be any long, sad goodbyes or overjoyed returns. Instead, make it so that every time the person leaves the home for a short period, the pet gets a special treat. This way, she will learn it’s not a bad thing for the person to be gone.
  • When there’s a custody dispute: The bond between people and their pets is incredibly strong, and it can be difficult to decide who keeps the animals after a couple splits. Try to look beyond your differences and consider your pets’ needs and what’s best for them. If you just can’t agree, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a nonprofit organization based in California, offers resources to help the court — and the couple — make the best decision for the pets. 
  • When couples share custody: In some situations, it is possible for a dog to split her time between two homes. For this scenario to be successful, consistency is key. If a pet is living in two different households, sometimes there are two different sets of rules and styles of training. The resulting uncertainty and confusion can create some problems. Therefore, couples should agree on basic training guidelines and household rules ahead of time. It is also necessary to feed the pet the same food to avoid stomach upset. Typically, this type of situation is not recommended for cats, unless they are already used to spending time in different locations.

Having a Baby

Possibly one of the most rewarding and joyous life changes, having a baby can be very stressful for an unprepared pet. To a confused animal, a newborn can be a frightening addition to the home. Here are several ways to help your pet know what to expect when you’re expecting:

  • Make slow introductions. Babies don’t look, act or smell anything like adults, so if your pet has never seen a baby before, it’s normal for her to be curious and a little upset. One way to prepare for an introduction is to bring home a blanket with the baby’s scent on it and present it to the pet with treats and praise.
  • Give the pet special attention. With all the excitement of a new baby and congratulatory visitors, new parents may forget to give their pet the attention and affection she’s used to. Make the extra effort to spend a little time each day with your pet so she doesn’t associate the infant with being ignored.
While you’re helping your pet become accustomed to your new baby, it’s also necessary to take certain precautions:

  • Always supervise. As a general rule, pets and babies should never be left alone unsupervised. Children can often play rough and don’t recognize pets’ warning signs, such as growling or baring teeth. And remember, pets should not be scolded for these things. If your pet is giving any warning to your child, take that as a sign that the pet isn’t comfortable, remove her from the situation and try to prevent it from happening again.
  • Don’t scoop the poop. If you’re a cat lady, it’s important to be aware of a parasitic disease called toxoplasmosis, which can be transmitted through cat feces. This risk, however, is very low and does not require expectant mothers to give up their cats. To reduce the risk, pregnant women should abstain from scooping the litterbox. If you must scoop litter while pregnant, wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly afterward. 

Other Changes

No matter what the life event, there are three basic steps pet owners should take to help pets accept a change in the household:

  • Prepare ahead of time
  • Introduce the change as slowly as possible
  • Offer rewards along the way
Pets, just like people, are creatures of habit, so you don’t want to overwhelm them and confirm their suspicions that something different is bad. Whatever it is that’s new in your pet’s life, keep it low-key and pair it with lots of rewards so she has reason to like it.

Remember that you know your pet better than anyone else does. If you notice a change in her behavior or body language, contact your veterinarian to be sure that the pet isn’t suffering from anxiety or a medical issue. And be patient. With a little extra attention and affection, your furry friend is likely to happily accept the new and the exciting.

Never Abandon Your Pet

When faced with an unfortunate life change, like a foreclosure or eviction, and you can no longer afford to care for your pet, do not leave your pet behind assuming that someone will find her. Instead, ask a responsible friend to care for the animal or contact your veterinarian, who may be able to assist with short-term boarding or can direct you to an agency, such as a local humane society, that can help.

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