Bringing Home Baby
The Cat Edition
Go through the owner surrender cards at any shelter or rescue or look through a classifieds section and you will see a sad number of cats being given up because of a new baby. Sometimes it is an automatic response. For years old wives' tales told of cats sucking the breath from children and passing dangerous diseases around. Modern times have shown us that cats do not deliberately harm babies and that basic good hygiene protects everyone from the spread of disease. Other times new parents make quick decisions based on the emotions and disruption that happen in the first few weeks or months of a new family member and fear for the well being of their baby and/or the cat. With some preparation, this also can be less of an issue. I am certainly no expert on cat behavior, but I have successfully kept my two cats and my daughter living under the same roof for three years now. Here are some of the things I have discovered in that time.
Many people don't think about helping cats adjust to the presence of a new baby. Just because we do not typically train them the way we do dogs does not mean they will just automatically adjust to a baby. In general letting a cat pick her own pace is the best way to go, but you can help make the transition to the baby easier. One of the easiest ways is to play a baby sounds CD just as you would with a dog.
Also as with dogs, it is important to start making changes to the cat's routine and living space as soon as possible. This is especially important if you need to move the litter box. Some cats will search out the litter box no matter where you put it, but most cats are not this forgiving. Decide where you want the box to be and move it a little closer every day. Make sure it is cleaned daily so the cat has less of an excuse to avoid it. (But of course, please let the non-pregnant do the cleaning!!!)
Less tricky is deciding if food and water bowls or cat beds need to be moved for feline or baby safety. Water dishes are very fun to tip over and play in depending on size could present a drowning hazard. Dry cat food can be a choking hazard, while wet or raw cat food can harbor bacteria. Placing these items on a sturdy, secured cat tree or shelf not only protect your child, but give your cat a much needed “baby-free zone.”
Baby-free zones should be available to the cat on each level of your house. This can be a high perch (sturdy enough that a baby or toddler cannot pull the item over on themselves or the cat) or a room closed off by a gate or cat door. The space will be important during the initial chaos of bringing the baby home and especially as your child gets older and mobile. Most cats want to avoid unpleasantness once the baby is moving around, so giving them an escape is vital to everyone's happiness.
While most cats will try to escape rather than put up with a child's enthusiastic love, there are always a few who will stay or who are not fast enough to get out of range. Teaching a child the proper way to show love for the kitty is vital. Modeling “gentle pets” on the baby's own arm and encouraging soft, one handed petting instead of hugs are excellent things to start doing as soon as the baby is old enough to notice the cat. Keeping the cat's nails trimmed is just as vital to make sure any defense from the cat does as little damage as possible. You really cannot blame a cat for defending herself the only way she can when she is hurt or scared, but you can minimize scratches.
It is important to have cat-free zones as well as baby-free zones. While most of us accept the fact that cats do not suck the breath out of infants, the fact is that infants are warm, smell like milk, and are smaller than the average cat. An innocent nap for the cat can cause panic for the parents. Start keeping the cat out of the baby's room today, either by keeping the door closed or by installing a screen door so you can hear and see the baby but the cat cannot get in.
Baby toys are incredibly irresistible to cats for the same reason babies love them. They are warm, soft, cuddly, and comfortable. As adorable as it can be to see the cat curled up in the bouncy seat, you may not want to encourage the behavior. Cats can be positively trained just as dogs are. Shaking a treat jar and telling the cat “off” as it gets up to investigate is an effective way to train the cat to get up on cue. Providing even more irresistible bedding and moving the cat to that area whenever she naps in the wrong spot is also helpful.
Sometimes cats do need some extra encouragement to leave the comforts of baby items alone. In those cases there are some relatively harmless deterrents you can use. There are commercial products such as Scat-Mats, which use static electricity, or SSSCat and Spray Sentry, which use compressed air, to dissuade a cat from a crib or blanket. Or you can use something simpler such as balloons, tin foil, carpet tape, nubby plastic carpet protectors (the side you usually toward the carpet), or netting to discourage a cat. Since they are mostly interested in comfort, most cats will break the habit of trying to access those areas after a few weeks of finding them blocked.