Monday, June 4, 2007

Pregnancy, Babies, and Your Cat

By Gary Loewenthal, from (courtesy of LightShadow)

Expecting a Baby?
You do NOT have to get rid of your cat!

Now that I have your attention: Pregnancy when you have a cat presents some challenges, but don't worry, none of them are even remotely insurmountable. You just need a little planning and know-how. Cats and babies have coexisted peacefully for thousands of years. This article deals with preparing for a new baby; the second part of this series discusses what to do once baby arrives.

1. Common questions and myths. No, cats do not suck the air out of a baby; that is an old wives tale. Yes, it is theoretically possible for a cat to inadvertently suffocate a baby, although there are no reliable reports of that ever occurring, and it's easy enough to block kitty's access to the crib (more details below).

2. Toxoplasmosis. Because toxoplasmosis can cause birth defects in children, pregnant women sometimes assume that they must get rid of their cat. This is entirely unnecessary, as a few simple measures will thoroughly safeguard against catching the disease, especially from your cat. Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a parasite that can infect your cat if she eats prey already harboring the parasite or comes into contact with contaminated soil. Toxoplasmosis is rare among indoor-only cats. Note that cats who contract toxoplasmosis do not always show symptoms. To prevent getting infected with the disease, whenever you scoop or clean the litter box, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands immediately afterward. Even better, get a friend or adult member of the family to take over litter box maintenance while Mom is pregnant.

3. Eating raw or undercooked meat is the most common way that humans contract toxoplasmosis. If you eat meat, wash off all surfaces and utensils that touched raw meat, and don't prepare meat and raw foods like salads on the same cutting board. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw meat.

4. If you garden, wear gloves when working in the soil. The toxoplasmosis parasite lives in the dirt, so also wash your hands well after gardening. Many people naturally acquire an immunity to toxoplasmosis, and will not pass it on to their unborn child. Your doctor can test to see if you are in this group.

Planning Ahead for the Introduction
Let's look now at how we can get your cat to accept your new baby with open paws. From your cat's point of view, a baby who shows up with no advance warning is a loud, threatening, and attention-stealing invader. It doesn't have to be this way. Babies and cats can be buddies. The key to getting a cat to accept a major jolt to her routine is soften the blow and introduce the change gradually. In the case of a new baby, you want your cat to be as used to baby stuff as she can possibly be beforehand, so that when your baby comes home, kitty is not totally shocked by this very interesting human life form.

1. Get kitty used to baby sounds and smells. Long before the big day, wear the baby lotions and powders that you will be using. Let kitty sniff you, and help her develop positive assocations with the new scents by praising her and giving her a treat.

2. Get a recording of a baby crying - possibly from a neighbor or relative who has a baby. You can also tape babies crying in a pediatrician's waiting room. Play the tape for kitty, starting with low volume and short length, and working up to full volume and duration. Again use positive attention and treat rewards.

3. If at all possible, invite a friend or family member with a baby to come over, with their baby, for a short visit, followed by a longer visit. Or two or three. During the visits, let kitty walk around, but it's best to have baby sitting on a lap.

4. A baby seat or playpen might work well, also. Play with your cat as long as you don't bother or scare the baby.

5. If you're building or preparing a nursery, give kitty a chance to become used to the new setup one step at a time. Let her get her curiosity throughly out of the way. Remember to keep up your daily interactive play sessions. Make kitty feel like she's a part of all this, not an outsider.

6. Set up the crib long in advance of baby's homecoming. Make the crib uninviting (to a cat). Fill several soda cans with pennies and tape the openings of each can. Fill the crib with these soda cans. If this doesn't deter kitty, you can buy netting that fits over the crib.

7. You can also block access to baby's room by installing an interior screen door - this is actually quite effective.

8. Give kitty plenty of exposure to toys, mobiles, and other baby accoutrements. You want all these things to have lost their novelty for her weeks before baby comes home.

Avoid Too Many Changes
Keep your cat's routine the same as much as possible. This won't always be easy between the hubub of visitors and houseguests and preparing for a new baby, but the effort is well worth it. A predictable routine reduces cats' stress and prevents a host of problems. Ask others to help make sure that your cat gets fed, brushed, and played with in the usual manner. Don't go overboard and give your cat extra, compensating attention prior to the baby's arrival because it will be impossible to keep that up once you have a baby at home to take care of. But do enlist family members to help kitty feel like a valued member of the family. Let all the adults and kids in your household know how they can help keep both kitty and baby safe, happy, and on peaceful terms.

Babies and cats do not have to be mutually exclusive. By using patience and common sense, you can teach your new baby and your cat mutual respect and ease the introduction of a new baby into your previously cat-owned home.

The big day approaches! You've gotten your cat used to everything baby-related, including baby sounds and smells and the crib. You've assigned family members to their proper cat duties: your loving husband George volunteered to scoop and clean the litter box, daughter Julie will take care of brushing and combing, and your boy Elroy signed on for daily interactive play. You've read, memorized, and followed to a tee the previous article in this series. You calmly go to the hospital.

While Mom and baby are still at the hospital, have a family member bring home something soft that has the baby's scent, so that kitty can get used to it before the baby arrives in person. As you can guess, praise kitty when she sniffs; tell her that she's going to enjoy meeting the newest member of the family. Give her a nice treat and lay the baby-scented article in a place that kitty frequents.

The Introduction
If you already had a practice session with a friend's baby, this will be - knock on wood - old hat. Ideally, someone feeds and plays with kitty just before baby's arrival home, so kitty will be relaxed. Let kitty sniff baby all she wants. Use the power of your calming voice to let kitty know that baby is her friend and not a threat. Have someone give kitty some fun treat rewards. If kitty or baby is too upset, that's okay, just try again later. Repeat the introduction several times, which allows your two littlest residents of the house a chance to gradually get used to one another. Each time, use praise and encouragement to reinforce in kitty's mind that baby is her friend - and future humble human servant! It would not be a big stretch to say that kitty will pick up on your positive vibes.

Keep Kitty's Routine the Same
As much as possible maintain your cat's regular schedule. In addition to fundamental items like meals and brushing, it's important to keep up the fun stuff like daily playtime and "quality time" on the lap. Doesn't have to be your (Mom's) lap - that will probably already be occupied. Although kitty might squiggle her way in and then you'll have two "babies" on your lap.

In addition to a new baby, you may have lots visitors who come to see the new baby. More stress for kitty (and sometimes the humans). Make sure you have a quiet room to which kitty can escape. You may want to use Feliway if she seems upset. Feliway is a well-known and safe artificial cat pheremone (body scent) spray. Pheremones are what cats rub on wall corners and pants legs with their cheeks. The type of pheremone that Feliway mimics tends to have a calming effect on cats. Apply it to walls and vertical surfaces as directed. Also, make sure that visitors don't inadvertently let kitty out by holding the front door open too long. Even if your cat normally never makes a move toward the door, with all the commotion and people coming and going - not to mention a new baby in the midst - she may be more prone to dart out. Family members should help guard the door and watch kitty. Remind visitors to try and limit how long they open the door and to watch for felines stealthily attempting to mosey outside. Put a sign on both sides of the door if necessary. And of course strive to make the indoors as hospitable as possible.

Especially as baby grows up, remember that little hands can yank, poke, and strike a cat unintentionally. Babies and toddlers don't always realize that cats, in spite of their claws and teeth, are fragile. If kitty is afraid that baby will hit her or bother her, she'll avoid him and be more defensive around him. You don't want this; you want the two of them to be respectful of each other, but friends. As baby grows up, teach him in an age-appropriate manner that kitty needs to be handled gently, and sometimes left alone. But for now and the next couple of years, to be on the safe side, never intentionally let your baby and cat be together unsupervised. (Remember the tip about the screen door to the nursery.) Baby and kitty may get to be fast friends - your two little schemers - but always with an adult watching.

In case you're wondering... There's no need at all to declaw your cat. A cat without claws may feel more defenseless and compensate by biting. In addition, repetitively digging claws into a scratching post is one of the most important and frequent ways that a cat works off stres and negative energy. The only way to ensure that kitty doesn't hurt baby is to watch the two of them closely and use behavioral techniques - a combination of humane disincentives and positive redirection - to reinforce into kitty's head that she has to be nice to baby. This is a proven and time-honored system. (Later on, you'll also want to use similar techniques in teaching your toddler respect for cats.) You may want to clip your cat's claws (see instructions here), or look into SoftPaws (, vinyl nail caps that significantly reduce the risk of claw damage while still allowing your cat to enjoy the many benefits of claws.

Even if you're doing everything right, kitty may need some time to adjust. A new baby is pretty traumatic for her. No matter how much she may have heard baby sounds before, it's always a little different with an actual baby living in the house. Don't worry, in time all of your efforts will pay off handsomely. Your baby will have a furry friend and companion for many years.
As baby grows up and learns about the wonder of animals, keep the camera (or two) handy because there will be countless moments of inter-species affection and cuteness that you will want to capture. Yes, a bit of a challenge now, but a big happy family in the end.

Gary Loewenthal is a dedicated animal advocate, and former host of the About Cats Forum. He has written several articles for the About Cats site, including many of the popular Shelter Sheets, and his articles have also appeared in The Whole Cat Journal, a monthly print magazine devoted to raising cats naturally. Gary is owned by Mike, a gorgeous cat with Traditional Siamese roots

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