This is Part 1 of a small advice series on how we can help cats and babies live amicably alongside one another.
Being pregnant is an extremely exciting and busy time with lots of planning and preparation to do. Pre-baby projects often include obtaining things for the baby to sleep in, travel in, wear and play with, as well as reorganising, redecorating and furniture building to create a nursery. For cat owners, it is not uncommon to be a little apprehensive with questions such as ‘will my cat cope with a new arrival?’ frequently being mulled over. Many cats will find some aspects of the preparation for and arrival of the new baby a little daunting. Owners may identify subtle changes in their cat’s behaviour, for example, spending less time around their owner or appearing more subdued. For some cats, the whole experience can be extremely distressing, with some even uprooting and choosing to live elsewhere or those staying, showing both physical and behavioural signs of distress. Fortunately, there are lots you can do to help your cats cope when the new arrival finally comes.
Preparing for the new arrival – helping your cat overcome challenges related to a new baby.
Challenge No 1: A new baby can lead to changes in normal household routines.
Why can it be a problem? Cats are creatures of routine and like events in their life to be predictable.
What can you do?
- Changes in routines such when the cat is fed or let out should occur gradually and start several weeks before the birth of the baby.
- Gradually pass over some of the care-taking jobs such as feeding the cat, cleaning its litter tray, playing with it and giving it attention to other members of the household. This will ensure some continuity in these daily events when the mother has less time.
Challenge No 2: Creating a nursery can lead to furniture and cats belongings to be moved within the home.
Why can it be a problem? Cats become attached to their physical home since they are territorial by nature. Disruptions in the home such as moving objects around, redecorating or bringing new objects into the home can therefore be distressing to a cat.
What can you do?
- Redistribute your cat’s resources (e.g. beds, litter trays and toys) that currently are placed in the room that is to become the baby’s to quiet places around the home.
- Provide more resources to the cat so the cat always has a choice about where to go to sleep, eat, toilet and play. The more choice and sense of control the cat has over the situation, the better able he will be able to cope. Lots of hiding places such as boxes and igloo beds and high up places such as shelves and cat trees will help greatly.
- Painting, decorating and building of furniture should occur gradually to give your cat time to recover between each change.
- Your cat should be allowed to voluntarily approach and explore any baby paraphernalia coming into the home in his own time.
- Baby-related items should never be placed right in front of your cat as this may startle him and lead him to flee.
- Rewards in the form of tasty treats, play and praise can be given for voluntary approach and exploration of new items.
- For large new items such as cots and prams, your cat’s scent can be rubbed onto the item to help him accept that it is part of his home. Cats commonly facial rub on familiar items within the home depositing their pheromones as they do. They are then able to detect such pheromones, which give them a sense of safety and security.
- To encourage the same with new items, your cat can be gently stroked around the cheeks, chin and head area while wearing a cotton glove (providing the cat likes to be stroked) and then the glove can be rubbed against the item at cat-head height.
- For particularly nervous cats and those that do not like to be stroked, the same effect can be created by using the synthetic version of the feline facial pheromone, Feliway in either a plug-in diffuser form or a spray. Be sure to plug in the diffuser away from shelves, windows and furniture to allow optimal diffusion. Ideally plug it in a few weeks before the changes in the home start to occur. If using the spray, wait 15 minutes before allowing the cat to explore the items to allow the alcohol in the spray to evaporate.
Challenge No 3: Many toys and baby-related equipment such as swinging seats and bouncy chairs play music and flash lights to entertain the baby.
Why can it be a problem? Cats have highly tuned senses and can find unpredictable lights and loud or sudden noises startling.
What can you do?
- Introduce new sights and sounds gently and gradually, even pairing the sound or flashing light with reward so your cat learns they are nothing to fear but instead good things happen when they occur.
- If there is no volume control, you can muffle the noise or reduce the number of flashing lights by covering part of the item in a heavy towel allowing gradual exposure.
- Make sure your cat is not close to the item but in a different room or at the other end of the room when it is switched on to give him the opportunity to observe from a safe distance. The ideal reaction from your cat is to look up in a relaxed fashion and then go back to what he was doing. Tossing a treat over to your cat can reward this ideal response.
- Do not encourage your cat closer to the item to receive the treat as this can either lure the cat too close to the item before it feels fully comfortable around it or it can teach a confident cat that it needs to be close to the baby’s things in order to receive a treat. The ideal situation is that the cat happily co-exists alongside the baby’s things rather than trying to actively engage with them.
- Initially play a recording of a baby cry (there are numerous audio clips freely available on the internet) at the lowest volume setting while the cat is as far away from the source of the sound as possible.
- Reward the cat for calm, relaxed behavior while the cries are playing by tossing a treat in his direction or giving him gentle calm praise if he enjoys physical interaction.
- Do not make a big fuss of your cat to prevent teaching him that every time the baby cries, it is a big event. Instead, it is simply something that happens, is nothing to fear and by remaining calm and relaxed, some positive consequences such as a food treat may appear. Over time – how long depends on how your cat reacts – the volume can be gradually increased, reaching the end-goal where the cat is comfortable hearing the cries at the volume a baby would actually cry.
Challenge No 4: Newborn babies bring new smells to the house
Why can it be a problem? Cats have very sensitive noses and use scents to feel safe and secure in their home. New baby smells can disrupt these feelings of safety.
What can you do?
- Before the birth of the baby, family members can expose your cat to some of these new smells, for example, by rubbing a little bit of nappy cream into their skin so he becomes used to this smell as one that exists within the household.
For more information on cats and owner pregnancy, please see our guidance on our website using the following link.
Coming soon….how to help your cat cope when the new baby comes home.
I am the feline behaviour specialist at feline charity ‘International Cat Care’. We are about engaging, educating and empowering people throughout the world to improve the health and welfare of cats by sharing advice, training and passion.