(Featured in Your Cat magazine September 2015 issue)
Pet Behaviourist Rosie Bescoby from Pet Sense explains how to make introductions as smooth as possible for you, your baby and your cat.
As a pet behaviourist, cat owner, and mother of two, I know that juggling babies and cats is no easy feat. But with a little help and preparation you can make life easier – and safer – for your children and your pets.
Becoming parents is a momentous time in our lives, but it can also be stressful. New babies change everything – our routines, our homes, our sleep…. Then just as you’re adjusting to parenthood, your little one begins to crawl and before you know it you have a willful toddler on your hands with a volcanic temper. It’s stressful for us, so how is it from our cat’s perspective? And more importantly, what can we do to help make the transition as smooth as possible?
Preparation is key
Cats are creatures of habit and tend to prefer consistency. They’re very sensitive to sudden changes to their routine or environment. Cats can react to babies in different ways. If your cat hasn’t grown up around babies, they might struggle to adjust to life with a new baby. They may react by hiding all day or spending more time outside to avoid the unusual and potentially scary sights, sounds and smells associated with a new baby. Others may develop inappropriate behaviours, such as persistent attention seeking, or even more upsetting stress-related behaviours like aggression, over-grooming or house soiling. So it’s best to start getting your cat ready long before your new baby makes their big entrance.
In the months leading up to the new arrival, it’s essential to adjust your cat to all the different aspects involved with bringing home a baby in a gradual and staged manner. Your neighbours might think you’ve gone into early labour, but these simple techniques can really work:
- Carry a doll around the house wrapped in a blanket.
- Buy new furniture and equipment you will need for your baby over a long period, rather than buying it all at once, to allow your cat to get used to the presence and smell of each new item.
- Prevent your cat from being able to get in cots, Moses baskets, car seats, baby bouncers etc by placing items in them or using a cat net. It’s important to allow your cat to inspect the new items though.
- Play YouTube clips or CDs of babies crying (quietly to start with, gradually increasing the volume over time) in different rooms of the house while your cat is eating or playing.
- Periodically produce noisy ‘entertaining’ baby toys and stimulating equipment and allow your cat to investigate.
- Introduce items that have baby scent (such as baby wipes, nappies, creams etc) whilst associating them with food or affection.
It’s important that your cat remains relaxed whilst you’re doing these practices. If at any point your cat appears stressed or unsure, stop what you are doing and make it easier (e.g. play the noises at a lower volume). The idea is that you want to use these preparatory training sessions to teach your cat not be stressed by the alterations to their life.
The first day your baby is brought home or introduced to your cat, each parent should greet the cat first without the baby. This is particularly important if there has been a stay in hospital – your cat might not have seen you for a few days and will be pleased to see you. You will smell differently (and might be walking differently…). If there’s a chance to take some of the baby’s worn vests/babygros home to let the cat smell before the baby is brought home, this will help provide olfactory information. Bring the baby into the house in the car seat (rather than holding it) and reward your cat for coming away from the baby.
The importance of communication
Cats have limited visual social signals and facial expressions so it can be difficult to read their body language. Scent communication is therefore an important way of relaying information to both themselves and other cats. Cats will spray or scratch at the edges of their territory. They may spray indoors if they feel they need to indicate an area of caution. This behaviour can be seen in any cat – male, female, entire or neutered. New scents brought into a cat’s home – such as items of furniture – can be confusing and may cause anxiety, which can lead to spraying.
Cats also have scent glands on their cheeks that release pheromones (scent chemicals). They rub these pheromones around the house or core territory to indicate a familiar ‘safe zone’ – cats feel safe and secure when they detect their own pheromone. Cats don’t typically cheek-rub objects unless they feel comfortable and secure. You can use a clean cloth to rub around your cat’s mouth and cheeks and then wipe this on the corners of new furniture prior to the arrival of the baby. By doing some faux cheek-rubbing for them, you may help speed up your cat’s feeling of familiarity with the object.
Feliway is a synthetic version of the cat’s facial pheromone which can assist in relaxing feline inhabitants and signalling to them that their home is safe and secure. It can be purchased as a diffuser and can be used to reinforce a ‘safe’ area, a month or so before the baby arrives and for the first few months after. The diffuser should be left on for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
When cats feel stressed, they typically choose to hide or get up high. Encourage use of a high shelf or space by placing a comfortable blanket and some favourite food. This will provide your cat with a safe, quiet space to retreat to when they’re over-stimulated by household commotion or your crying baby.
Cats often find appropriate hiding places such as in a cupboard or underneath the bed – again, encourage this and make these locations accessible at all times. Cats should not be distracted or disturbed when they are using their hiding places.
Prior to and during a stress-inducing event (such as a new baby), provide the following:
- A variety of places to get up high
- Options of different places to hide
- Hunting/playing opportunities
- Independent activity feeder toys
- Scratching posts – sturdy, tall, and with a vertical thread, located next to your cat’s favourite sleeping area
- Large litter trays positioned in quiet areas, inaccessible to the baby (1 per cat plus an extra 1)
- Several food bowls positioned away from litter trays and water
- Water bowls positioned away from litter trays and food
Once the baby has arrived home and you are beginning to settle into a new routine, aim to engage in at least one interactive play session with your cat a day. Play with your cat in the presence of the baby to help form a positive association with the baby. Independent playtime is also important so your cat can have something fun to do while you’re feeding or interacting with the baby. Place a fuzzy mouse in an empty tissue box or put a toy in a paper bag. Incorporate the use of activity feeders – there are loads on the market or you can make your own. For example, Yakult bottles with holes in the sides, so your cat has to bat it around to get treats to fall out.
Try to reinforce independent behaviour as much as possible – when your cat is resting or entertaining themselves, give them a fuss or a game with their favourite toy. This will help prevent attention seeking or needy behaviours which can become inadvertently reinforced.
In advance of your baby beginning to crawl, install baby gates to allow your cat free access to come and go as they please, but to prevent the baby from getting to the cat.
On the move
Cats rely on predictability for a stress-free life. There is nothing predictable about a baby once they learn to get around by themselves! These inquisitive and erratic little humans are now on the floor sharing the space that was previously reserved just for animals. Your baby is down at your cat’s eye level, which may be perceived as a threat. Typically, babies want to grab the cat or reach toward them and crowd the cat’s space. They are intrusive and meddlesome! This can be very unsettling for even the most relaxed of cats.
Has anyone explained this new development to the cat? How is a cat supposed to know that an approaching eye-level baby is not a threat?
Let’s look at ways to help your cat as you all adjust to life with a baby on the move:
- The cat’s safe space (behind the baby gate) is strictly a NO BABY zone. Be proactive rather than reactive in its use. Use it when feeding the cat so the baby cannot gain access.
- Don’t allow your baby to approach the cat – invite your cat over to you and your baby and listen to the cat if they choose not to approach. This is particularly important if the cat is resting or sleeping. When cats exhibit aggressive behaviour, it is usually because they are stressed or fearful and do not have the option to escape, so their option is to behave aggressively.
- Help your cat out of potentially difficult situations. Cats don’t always move away from situations that make them uncomfortable. Sometimes they might feel trapped or cornered, or conflicted because they don’t want to leave the area where they were happily sleeping. Cats will put up with a certain amount because they would like to be with the adults, but perhaps not the baby. If a cat feels like they can’t or don’t want to move away, the next behavioural option is usually aggression. As a cat ages, hearing and eyesight often deteriorate so they are more easily startled and they don’t have the chance (or ability, if they are stiffer and arthritic) to move themselves away from difficult situations. Give your cat a positive warning signal and then call the cat away before the cat feels uncomfortable (or better still, move the baby away!). If your cat moves away, prevent your baby from following.
- Don’t allow hugging, fur grabbing or tail pulling – even if your cat appears to tolerate these behaviours. Over time, a negative association will be created with the baby and your cat is likely to react aggressively at some point. Do not expect a cat to tolerate a child’s behaviour. If your cat starts to develop any discomfort or pain (e.g. arthritis, ear infections etc), their threshold for tolerating such behaviours will be much lower. Imagine when we have a headache or chronic backache – we tend to be far more irritable than when we are feeling fit and well.
It takes patience, understanding and careful supervision but with help and perseverance you CAN keep your baby safe and your cat happy. If you’re worried about how the introduction of your baby will affect your cat, seek professional help as early as possible – visit www.apbc.org.uk.
*Pet Sense aims to help owners understand their pet’s behaviour and provides Telephone Consultations for prospective new parents or cat owners experiencing behavioural problems. Contact Rosie Bescoby on 07817478707, email email@example.com or visit www.pet-sense.co.uk for more information.