How will your cat react to having a new arrival in the house and how do you ensure cat and baby get along? Vet and behaviourist Francesca Riccomini offers advice on how to prepare your family feline for a new addition .
For many owners, their cat represents another family member and as such has equal access to all the resources their home has to offer. In feline terms, this includes human attention, which is often on demand whenever anyone is at home. So can cat and baby get along?
Centre of attention
It is not unusual for a pet to be nurtured and even spoiled, becoming the 'baby' of the family. This is fine if it suits the cat's temperament and everyone involved, but problems can arise when a real baby is suddenly introduced into the household.
The problems can be severe if the cat is mature and has had little, or only negative, experience of babies and young children, particularly during the important kitten socialisation period of between two and seven weeks. Many of us acquire our cats when they are well past this stage or don't have the opportunity to introduce tiny kittens to small children. Although it is not impossible to make up for this lack of early experience in later life, it is best to make plans and preparations well in advance of a baby's birth.
Different responses from different cats
How an individual cat will respond to a new arrival will depend upon genetics (breed and parentage as well as species), personality and experience. Sometimes, it has to be admitted that these do not predispose an individual to coexist harmoniously and safely with babies and young children. Some owners, after careful consideration of all the issues, decide that they cannot take the responsibility of keeping a particular pet when they have children and so find their cat a good home which is more suited to his needs. Sadly, the decision to relinquish a pet is not always so well considered and aggression towards children or urine spraying (for which the unprepared arrival of a baby can be a stimulus) is a not uncommon reason for cats to end up in need of rescue. It is not always possible to prevent such a sad outcome by pre-emptive action but it can often be avoided by careful thought and forward planning.
Living in harmony
For the best possible chance of your extended family living happily together, two aspects need to be considered: the environment and the pet. Your cat needs to have his own bed, feeding and water dishes, toys, litter tray etc. Although these need to be sited somewhere convenient for all the humans in the house they also need to be in the right spot for the cat - the litter tray should be in a private position away from his food and away from areas of busy traffic, like the kitchen and hallway; the scratching post should be near an external door or close to where the cat already chooses to mark his territory by clawing. If possible, choose somewhere elevated for the cat to eat or rest, or an area which can be sealed off with a baby gate. This gives the cat a chance, at least, to escape the advances of a toddler. If the current locations of your cat's bed, litter tray and other requirements are going to prove impractical or unsuitable when the baby arrives, you will need to make changes now. It is important, particularly for an elderly cat, that these changes are made gradually.
Somewhere to hide
Remember that the preferred feline method of dealing with something unsettling, which may represent a potential threat, is to hide, preferably in a high, dark, secluded place from which there is a good view, so that the situation can be assessed in safety. Such sanctuaries can easily be provided by putting cardboard boxes on their side, or igloo beds, on top of furniture or sturdy shelves. Provide a number of such retreats in various areas of your home, but especially where you will spend time with your baby and encourage their use by putting favoured blankets or tasty treats in them.
Often the room which is to be the nursery is one to which the cat has been allowed free access. It is advisable for this to be prevented well before the baby actually takes up residence. To reduce adverse reaction to the change and to prevent 'barrier frustration', spray the closed door and its frame with Feliway or rub with 'facial cloths'. Don't forget that indoor cats will be more affected by even small changes in their environment, territory and lifestyle, than those with access to the outdoors.
Changes to territory
The feline olfactory system is very sensitive and scent is an important means of communication in the domestic cat. Thus any disturbance in the scent profile of a cat's territory can have a major impact and cause real distress to a pet. This is frequently unrecognised, but explains why equipment for the baby, acquired in advance of his or her arrival, often becomes the target for urination or spraying, as a cat attempts to reassure itself by 'marking' the articles with its own scent in this way. Pheromone preparations can also, therefore, be usefully applied to such baby things as buggies, cots and highchairs. For this reason it is worth acquiring from friends and relatives as many everyday baby items as possible so that your cat can be introduced ahead of time to the wide range of often pungent odours he will later encounter! These may be minimal to us, with our poor sense of smell, but could represent a major stressful intrusion for a cat. Bringing the things into the home in a gradual and controlled way should not only reduce any aversive qualities associated with them by allowing your cat to adjust slowly to their presence, but should help you by creating opportunities to condition positive associations by, for instance, offering tasty food or indulging in a favourite game, when something first arrives.
Praise, play, food
It is worth remembering the essential 'rules' of never reassuring a pet's anxiety or fear, as this will only make it worse. But reinforce relaxed behaviour by your cat in the face of any potential stressor with praise, petting, play or food. A cat's hearing, like its sense of smell, is very much better than ours, so it would be worth playing, initially at low volume, tapes of baby noises - crying, gurgling, squealing etc. Again, reward the behaviour you wish to encourage and only increase the volume gradually as your cat indicates that he can cope.
It is, of course, helpful to have babies and young children visit your home, but choose the latter with care. Cats can find the experience overwhelming if confronted by youngsters who insist on pursuing them. Always supervise encounters and ensure that any handling is gentle and appropriate. Children should never be allowed to try and pick up a cat they are not strong enough to hold comfortably. They should always be shown how to support the pet's full weight with a hand under his bottom so that he is never allowed to dangle from his front legs. Remember too, that some conscientious children, when told not to let a kitten or small cat fall, inadvertently squeeze too hard so that their good intentions hurt the animal as much as those of the child who is rough and uncaring. It is best to stick to hands-off interaction, such as playing with fishing rod toys, balls or a torchlight against the wall, sitting quietly near a cat or perhaps giving him a gentle stroke or grooming if the cat concerned won't find that too intrusive. Again, making the experience pleasurable by reinforcement with praise or a treat can help to consolidate the positive associations for the cat with the presence of small humans. Never let anyone, including children, encourage a cat or kitten to play directly with fingers, toes or any other part of the human anatomy. This can lead, albeit unintentionally, to injury at a later date and sometimes to problems with aggression.
If your relationship with your cat has been very close, it may well be difficult to find the time to sustain the same degree of affection once the new baby arrives. So it would be sensible and kinder to your cat to dilute the emotional intensity between you well in advance. Anticipate your new timetable and establish a different routine for your cat which you are fairly confident you will be able to sustain in the future. Introduce changes gradually to minimise the impact. If your cat is used to undivided attention for much of the time, withdraw it initially for short periods as far in advance of the baby's arrival as possible. You can gradually lengthen the periods of withdrawal at a rate which reflects your cat's ability to cope. Instigate times of structured play or grooming to suit your new timetable and your cat's needs, but if he appears aroused or stressed, don't impose your attentions on him as he will only become more upset and may even lash out at you.
If your cat has existing behavioural problems which you have previously 'put up with' now is the time to get them sorted out as it is likely they will only worsen with the upheaval and disruption caused by a tiny baby. When your baby arrives, try to set aside time for your cat and stick to his established routines. Predictability is very important to felines. If you are simply too busy to cope with the demands of both baby and cat, consider inviting friends or family known to him to provide one-to-one sessions of play or grooming. If your cat tries to run away from your children never try to thwart him. Flight is a natural feline reaction to anything strange. If you try to restrain him, it will cause him stress and fear could spill into aggression if he believes that he is trapped and has lost control of the situation.
Bringing home baby
This is especially important when you first bring the baby home. If you have undertaken the preparation detailed above, the cat will hopefully not be too averse to the new arrival. But installing plug-in Feliway diffusers at various points in the home, particularly areas associated with the baby, should help to provide reassurance. You may also win him over by offering him favoured food which is not normally available. Some cats become more concerned about children when they are mobile than when they are tiny babies. A crawling or toddling child can take a cat by surprise and his or her squeals and shrieks can be frightening for a feline. Providing places of retreat for the cat is even more important at this stage. Finally, children should never be brought up, even inadvertently, to view pets as playthings. From the outset they must be taught to respect the cat, to approach and handle him appropriately and well because ultimately there are so many benefits and pleasures to be derived from growing up in a family with a well-adjusted companion animal. Ref: Feline Advisory Board - www.fabcats.org