Cats and Your New Baby
This article was originally printed in the October 1996 issue of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine’s Catnip newsletter.
When your full-grown cat cuddles on you lap, kneading you with his massive dinner plate paws and purring like a jet engine, he appears to be reenacting a nursing behavior from his kitten days. His actions suggest he regards you as a surrogate mother – a great honor indeed. But unfortunately, this close “familial” bond may lead to problems if you add a new member to your human family. Your cat may view the new person as a territorial invader or a rival for your affection. But, with a bit of effort, you can help your furry housemate adjust to the new group dynamic, and all family members will reap the rewards.
The family addition most likely to change your cat’s lifestyle (and yours!) is a new baby. Babies mean new sights, sounds, and smells, and they take the lion’s share of everyone’s attention. “A cat can end up feeling displaced,” notes Dr. Stefanie Schwartz, a clinical assistant professor at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and author of No More Myths: Real Facts to Answer Common Misbeliefs About Pet Problems. “This is particularly true of tightly bonded cats that depend on their owners for lots of physical contact and play.”
If you plan ahead, you can make the arrival of a new baby much less stressful – at least from your cat’s point of view. The first step is to introduce the cat to the baby’s things. Curiosity specialists that they are, cats will usually investigate the new crib, toys, blankets, and other paraphernalia without much prompting. But if you plan to do a lot of nursery redecorating, do it gradually over several weeks. Many cats become uneasy with mass migrations of furniture.
Your cat will also benefit from a slow introduction to the sight, sounds, and smells of a baby. If you have any friends with babies, invite their little ones over to meet your cat. Also, consider getting a recording of a crying baby. Play it at irregular intervals. During each replay of the tape, give your cat a treat and some attention so it learns not to fear the sound of crying. Expose your cat to baby product smells by putting infant lotions and powders on you hands every day for several weeks before the baby’s due date.
Bundle of Joy
As the big day approaches, a few well-meaning friends may issue warnings about the risk of allowing a cat around a newborn. But it’s a misconception that cats are hostile toward babies. Most cats will hide if they feel threatened by a newborn. At worst, they may urinate on the baby’s things. If you suspect any feline “hard feelings,” you can assuage them by involving your cat in the baby’s upbringing. As you feed you newborn, give your watchful cat a treat too. When you talk to the baby, include Puss in the “conversation.” Eventually, your cat will associate the baby’s presence with positive attention. From then on, Puss will most likely be one of Junior’s biggest fans.
When babies reach the age of scooting around the house on hands and knees or bowlegs, they can present new problems for you and your cat. “Some toddlers move very fast, they may step on the cat, pull its fur, disturb it while it’s sleeping, or pursue it when it tries to get away,” says Dr. Schwartz. To keep your cat safe from toddler antics, create a feline sanctuary. Install a baby gate low enough for your cat to hurdle at the doorway of one bedroom, and put comfortable bedding and a litter box inside the room.
As parents know, toddlers often have enough energy to power a major metropolitan area – and boundless curiosity that leads them into trouble. Some youngsters will happily dig through the litter box, taste-test the cat food du jour, or engage the cat in a bout of Greco-Roman wrestling. These activities may put children at risk for contracting a zoonotic disease (one that can pass from animals to humans). To be on the safe side, parents should practice meticulous hygiene during their children’s “try anything” phase.
The New Roommate
New adult family members don’t usually cause as much upheaval as babies and toddlers (for one thing, adults don’t play in the litter box), but any newcomer can set off anxiety in a cat. New roommates mean new smells, new sounds, and new furniture. And if the newcomer is a girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse of the owner, the cat may get a lot less attention than before. Confronted with these unwelcome changes, some cats become territorial and channel their frustration into inappropriate elimination or aggression toward their owner.
To smooth the introduction of a new roommate, follow the same steps you would with a baby. You cat should get to know the new person before he or she moves in. Ask the person to come over to meet the cat and leave some aromatic items of clothing behind. When you make the introductions, do so gradually. “The important thing is not to be invasive,” says Giulia Zanone, a former Tufts University research associate in animal behavior. “Don’t push the cat off its favorite chair or wake it up to meet the newcomer.” Just as a cat does best when gradually introduced to a new roommate, a new roommate may need time to feel comfortable with a resident feline. To help bridge the interspecies gap, suggest ways your new roommate might interact with your cat. Start with recreation: both humans and felines usually enjoy a rousing game of “chase the shoestring.” Then, encourage the new roommate to serve your cat a meal or two. Finally, teach the newcomer how your cat likes to be petted and held.
While it may seem like a lot of work, helping your cat adjust to a new household member is well worth the effort. Once Puss feels relaxed, he will most likely add the newcomer to his select roster of “extended family” – and your new family member will learn the joys of having a cat as comforter, confidant, and friend.
Cats in the Cradle
According to an old wives’ tale, a jealous cat will “steal a baby’s breath” if given half a chance. No one knows exactly how a cat might manage this feat, but that mystery hasn’t stopped the superstition from surviving to the present day.
Rest assured, there’s no truth to the story. Cats do not intentionally harm babies. But parents should still play it safe. A particularly friendly feline might interfere with a baby’s breathing by curling up in the cradle or licking the baby’s face. (One often quoted but unproven notion is that cats are drawn to the smell of mile on a baby’s breath.) To safeguard babies from overly cuddlesome cats, make the crib off limits. Shut the nursery door when you leave and install a baby monitor. Or replace the solid door with a screen door. You may also want to put woven mesh over the crib. “The main thing is to be vigilant,” advises Dr. Stefanie Schwartz. “You should know where the pet is; you should know where the baby is.”