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How to introduce your cat to your new baby
By Claudine McCarthey
Freelance writer | bio |
Dr. Chapman was featured in this article that originally appeared in CAT FANCY Magazine in April 1998
Chances are, you’ve heard the horror stories about cats and babies: cats suck out a baby’s breath. Cats intentionally smother newborns. You may have heard that cats will aggressively lash out, scratching or biting a defenseless baby innocently playing with her toys or sleeping in her crib. If you’re expecting a baby of your own, well-meaning friends and relatives have probably warned you to give your cat away or at least keep it far from the new arrival. Should you listen to their advice?
The good news is if you are a new parent or grandparent, or are planning on becoming one,
you don’t have to find a new home for your cat. By following these valuable tips from veterinarians, pediatricians and experienced parents, you will discover that a little extra planning will go a long way in ensuring a safe and healthy—even affectionate—
relationship between your cat and new baby.
Pediatricians and veterinarians alike agree that cats and babies should get to know each other slowly and gradually. In fact, a successful introduction process begins even before your baby is born. “New parents should prepare their cats to meet the baby before they have the baby,” Carole A. Chapman, D.V.M. of Best Friends Veterinary Hospital in Boynton Beach, Florida, says. Begin by familiarizing your cat with your baby’s sounds and smells well before you expect to bring the infant home.
Pregnant with my daughter, Emily Rose, I was assembling the baby carrier and stroller when our cats, Romeo, Pete and Shorty, walked over to sniff everything. The minute I turned my back, Pete jumped in the carrier. Even now, one of them will sit in the stroller as if he’s waiting for me to take him for a walk. Encouraging my cats’ curiosity has helped them to adapt to a big change into their lives.
“If your cats want to come in the room or lie on the rocking chair or under the crib, don’t discourage them and scat them out because they’ll feel pushed away. This can lead to all sorts of behavioral problems,” explains Dr. Chapman, who is a mother of a 3-year-old and a 9 ½-year-old, as well as the owner of two cats and a dog.
However, this doesn’t mean your cat should have the run of the nursery. In fact, it’s equally important to teach your cat that certain areas are off-limits now that a baby is on the way. For example, “Don’t encourage the cats to lie in the crib,” Dr. Chapman says. “Take them out and tell them ‘no’ every time.”
The crib must be off-limits to your cat mainly to avoid exposure to allergens and parasites. “Do not allow your cat to sleep in the baby’s room.” Dr. Chapman says. “Your child may have cat allergies and your cat could pounce on or scratch your baby.” It is also possible that your cat could inadvertently lie near your baby’s head, which could pose a breathing problem for babies who are unable to lift their heads.
It’s a popular misconception, though that cats suck out a baby’s breath or intentionally smother babies. “I’ve never seen anything about cats smothering babies in the pediatric journals.” Kenneth Polin, M.D., a pediatric specialist with Town and Country Pediatrics in Illinois, notes. “It’s one of these urban legends.”
Wayne Hunchausen, D.V.M., director of Animal Behavior Consultations at Westwood Animal Hospital in Kansas, agrees. “It never happens,” he says. “I can’t recall any cases of a cat attacking a baby lying in the crib.” As for the myths’ origin, Dr. Chapman ventures that if cats are seen near a baby’s mouth, the cats are probably harmlessly licking milk droplets.
Although it’s best to be cautious, some cats may not even be interested in jumping in the crib. “We were so concerned about our cat, Tigger, lying on our baby Pamela’s head and suffocating her,” Patty Foti of New York recalls. “My husband Paul and I would close the door to her room but Tigger would scratch at it, keeping us awake. Eventually we trusted Tigger — we kept the door open and Tigger would just sleep under the crib.”
To keep cats in their place, Dr. Hunthausen suggests placing a motion detector alarm in the crib or on the changing table. “That way you’re not yelling at your cat every time it jumps in the crib, and your cat won’t associate scolding with your baby. The important thing is reducing the stress on your cat,” he says. Motion detector alarm, a freestanding unit that runs on a nine-volt battery, can be purchased at baby supply stores and through mail-order catalogs.
As soon as you find out a baby is on the way, veterinarians and pediatricians recommend a feline examination to make sure your cat is free of worms and other parasites and its vaccinations are up-to-date. Indoor cats are at a lower risk than outdoor cats for diseases such as rabies, worms and toxoplasmosis, but parents should be aware that all cats have the potential of infecting your and your family. For example, if a kitten with roundworms eliminates in a litter box and a child puts the fecal matter in his or her mouth, the child could be infected with ocular larval migrans, which could blind the victim. However, the incidence is low, perhaps one or two cases reported each year in the United States, according to Elaine Wexler-Mitchell, D.V.M., who owns The Cat Care Clinic in California
In addition, a parasite found in the cat feces and uncooked or undercooked meat can infect an unborn baby with toxoplasmosis, resulting in brain damage or blindness, Jonell Crowly, M.D. of Palm Beach Pediatrics in Florida, explains. Again, the incidence of infection is low, but pregnant women should nevertheless avoid handling or eating uncooked meat and have someone else clean the litter box. If no one else is available, they should wear rubber gloves when handling the litter and follow with a thorough hand washing.
If your cat tends to be aggressive or anxious, Dr. Hunthausen suggests a visit to an animal behavior consultant and the use of anti-anxiety mediation. Declawing may also help, though alternative methods should be considered first. “If your cat is really nervous, start desensitizing it before your baby comes home,” Dr. Hunthausen recommends. Play a recording of a baby cooing and crying, turn on the mechanical swing, sit in the rocking chair, then give your cat a good reward, he suggests. “Make a game out of it. Associate fun and food with the sounds of a child.
“Cat owners realistically can’t spend as much time with the cat after the baby arrives, so about six or seven months before, start reducing the amount,” he adds. That way, your cat will learn to expect less time with you.
If the cat is close with the mother only, Dr. Chapman stresses that the father-to-be should develop a closer relationship with the animal before the baby is born. Then, he can provide extra attention while the mother spends time with the baby, especially if she’s nursing.
Scott Orr of Florida believes the extra attention he gave his cats, Misha and Sammy, helped them adapt well to having a baby girl and a baby boy around. “I always gave our cats much more attention than my wife Dianne did, so they didn’t have to adjust to receiving less attention from Dianne after our kids, Veronica and Nicholas, were born,” he says.
Prior to baby’s arrival is also the time to stop roughhousing with your cat, Dr. Hunthausen says. If you encourage your cat to playfully pounce on, swat at and nibble on your hands and feet, then your cat may attack the tiny toes that your baby dangles over the edge of her carrier or swing. Provide your cat with more toys for entertaining itself, such as ping-pong balls that it can bat back and forth or a small box with a toy suspended from a spring.
Before your baby leaves the hospital, send home one of the receiving blankets that the baby was swaddled in. Encourage your cat to sniff the blanket so that it can get to know the baby’s scent. And when you bring your baby home, let your cat rub up against the baby carrier and sniff your baby’s little toes and face, Dr. Chapman says. This is your cat’s way of marking its territory and not necessarily a sign of affection.
Scott Orr recalls that after the initial sniffing, his cats chose to ignore his daughter Veronica, now 3 ½ years old. “When Veronica yelled, our cats would run.” By the time Scott and Dianne had Nicholas, their cats had become accustomed to children. “When one of our cats is on our bed, Nicholas, who is now 18 months old, rests his head on the cat’s belly, and it doesn’t seem to mind,” Orr says. “The cats are pretty tolerant.”
Although Dr. Hunthausen doesn’t presume to know what’s going on in your cat’s mind when a new baby comes into the picture, he imagines that “in most cases, they’re a bit put off: they look at the baby as an intrusion.” That’s why it’s important to expect a slow getting-to-know-you process.
“Gradually expose your baby to your cat and watch the reaction,” Dr. Polin says. “Often, if it’s done gradually, cats have been known to adopt the baby. In some respects, they’re very protective and may treat the child as their own.”
Patty Foti says that’s what happened when Tigger met Pamela. “Tigger never really bothered Pamela,” Patty recalls. “If Pamela cried, Tigger would come over. Tigger was more concerned than jealous, and she’s still like that.” Nevertheless, Patty and her husband, Paul, kept a watchful eye, and unless they were nearby, they never let Tigger get too close. Now 3 ½-year-old Pamela has taken on the job of feeding Tigger, and that makes her feel like she’s helping her mother, who recently had another baby.
“The key is to never force anything.” Dr. Hunthausen says. “When both your cat and your baby are calm, have two adults sit next to each other, one holding your baby and the other holding your cat. But if your cat wants to get up and go, let it.” He warns. “Don’t hold your cat down.” Then, slowly proceed in stages. First, don’t encourage any interaction between your cat and your baby, but let your cat eat some treats out of one adult’s hand. Next, sit a little closer. The adult who is holding your baby should then pet your cat. When your baby is old enough, encourage her to pet your cat. To teach your baby how to pet your cat, start out with a stuffed toy, Dr. Hunthausen suggest. “When your baby is relatively calm, demonstrate what you want your baby to do. When she does it, giver her a reward.”
My husband Chris and I used this method to introduce our cats to our daughter, Emily Rose. Chris would hold one cat at the end of the couch while I held Emily Rose on the opposite end. Then we introduced each of them by name, whispered words of comfort and allowed each cat to sniff out the situation from a distance. It took a while, but our cats slowly warmed up to the idea of having a new baby in the house.
Veterinarians usually stop short of labeling cats as jealous, but acknowledge that cats are notoriously territorial and may feel stressed about having to share their home and owners with a new baby. “They’re very possessive of their favorite person in the house,” Dr. Chapman explains.
If it has a nervous or aggressive demeanor, or if the introduction process is botched, your cat may develop behavioral problems, such as not using the litter box or excessive grooming. If after your baby is born, you drastically reduce the amount of time you spend with your cats or frequently scold or ignore your cats in the baby’s presence, your cat may also develop behavioral problems, Dr. Chapman notes. “When you see a behavioral problem developing, give your cat more attention,” she says.
“If your cat is very nervous, give your cat a quiet floor or room of the house for the first few days or weeks,” Dr. Hunthausen adds. Restricting treats to whenever your baby is around will also help. “This sends a message to your cat that whenever it is good, you’re going to toss a treat to it. Then your cat will think: ‘Whenever that baby is around, I get good stuff,’ ” he says.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your cat may not be suited to life with a baby. “If your cat is very aggressive or your child is having a strong, severe allergic reaction such as asthma,” Dr Polin warns, “then finding an alternative home for your cat may be in your child’s best interests.”
Although it’s unlikely that your baby could injure your cat, it’s still important to teach your baby that it’s dangerous to pull your cat’s ears, tail, hair or whiskers, to chase it and to throw toys or other objects at it. “Teach your child that a cat is a free spirit, and that he or she must let the cat go.” Dr. Hunthausen says, “If you can’t control your child, you will have to keep your child and your cat apart.” He says. At about nine months, babies can understand “no,” but they don’t listen well, Dr. Polin says, so follow through by moving your baby away from your cat and distracting your baby with another activity.
Foti says it’s an ongoing process teaching Pamela to not chase Tigger. “We tell Pamela not to do it, and sometimes she listens,” she says. “Other times Tigger just has to run away. Thankfully, Tigger dosesn’t try to bite her.” In fact they’ve developed such a good relationship that Tigger now lets Palmela pick her up and carry her.
“Start saying ‘no’ immediately, because no one knows when it clicks in the brain, “ Dr. Crowley says. “But don’t begin disciplining (with time-outs, for example) until a child is 18 months to 2 years old. It’s toddlers that I worry much more about than babies because most attacks are provoked,” she adds. The few scratches or bites that she has seen among her patients usually occur with a family pet “when someone should have been supervising more closely.”
If your cat bites or scratches your child, seek immediate medical attention, Crowley advises. And watch for swelling of your baby’s lymph glands — a sign of cat scratch disease. If a cat draws blood from a bite or scratch, your child should be treated with antibiotics.
“Never leave your cat and your baby alone together,” Dr. Chapman says. “I always watch my kids when they’re with one of my pets.”
“If you have the least bit of doubt, never allow any unsupervised interaction until your cat shows no signs of excessive fear or aggression,” Dr. Hunthausen says. “When your baby is screaming or making major movements, or your cat hisses or growls, be wary. The bottom line is not to take any chances at all.”
Once your baby is mobile, it’s also important to keep your cat’s littler box and food and water dishes out of reach. Options include putting a baby gate across the doorway with a hole cut out for your cat, or installing a cat door to your basement or garage, Dr. Hunthausen suggests. Dr. Chapman recommends a litter box with a cover specifically designed to keep children and dogs out, while still allowing your cat access.
Your cat and your baby will most likely grow to love each other. Babies who grow up with a cat are not likely to feel afraid, Dr. Polin explains. “It’s just part of their home environment.”
By investing a little extra planning, time and supervision, your cat and your new baby can develop a loving friendship. Our cats and 17-month-old baby are proof positive. Every time Emily Rose squeals in delight as she pets our cats as they walk by or they rub up against her and purr, I smile, knowing that a cat can be a baby’s best friend.