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« Identification | Main | To "No" or not to "No" »
Thursday
Aug022012

Furry Friends for Babies, Too!

When I worked at the shelter, I was surprised at first by the sheer number of cats that came into the shelter because a baby was coming or a baby had arrived. It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I determined to keep our cat (we only had one cat, Zuggy at that time) when I was pregnant with my first child and even after he was born. Even when I was pregnant with my youngest and for a time after he was born (when he was still small) I watched the cats like a hawk and was probably overly cautious. However, with two kids and two cats, we haven't had a single problem, and furthermore, the research that I did before my eldest was born showed me, and still shows, that it is certainly possible to keep your cat while you are pregnant and have little ones. Let's explore the true dangers, the myths, and the real, simple solutions.

First, a myth. There is an old wives' tale that a cat will kill a child by stealing its breath. In truth, this won't happen, but there is a danger if the cat sits in the chest of a small infant. If the infant is very small, they will not have the strength to breathe with a ten or fifteen pound (or more) fluffy thing sitting on them. The solution to this danger is very simple- keep the cat out of the crib especially while the baby is in the crib. We will explore ways to keep the cat out of the crib in a little bit.

The second true danger also relates to suffocation. If the cat is lying close by the child and they are not old enough yet to be able to roll over, they present the same hazard to breathing as a crib bumper or a blanket does. The soft fluffy fur can easily inhibit normal breathing- just try burying your face in a friendly, tolerant cat and see how long you can stand it. However, many young children including infants love the soft feel of fluffy fur. The danger of suffocation is alleviated in the same way as above- simply and easily by keeping the cat away from the sleeping baby.

Another thing parents often worry about is the danger of allergies. In fact, studies have shown that households which include a pet have much lower incidence of allergies and asthma than households without a furry friend. So, if you are worried that your child will have allergies, you should get them around furry animals more, not less. The exception of course is if your child already has allergies or asthma, in which case there are some things you can do to lessen the dander and perhaps keep your pet without causing a reaction, but that is a topic for another post.

Many parents worry about scratches and bites. If your cat is reasonably friendly and healthy, this usually is not too much of a concern in the early months. Infants in the early days do little besides lay around, sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly. Cats are not likely to feel too threatened by an immobile object regardless of the noise as long as they are reasonably well socialized and have places to hide in which they feel safe. Thus, it is unlikely that a healthy cat will randomly walk up to an immobile infant and bite or scratch it. Some things that can cause a young infant to seem like prey or something to chase (for dogs, too) include swings and bouncers, so if your baby is in one of these, either confine your animals or be sure the baby is under direct, adult, competent, and most importantly, alert supervision. A sleeping, exhausted adult is not adequate supervision for a child in one of these devices (nor for a child sleeping in a pen or crib in which the cat can jump in). In the early days when you are exhausted, give yourself a break and confine your animals while you and your baby take a nap. That way there is much less chance of anything happening.

Now, a child who is mobile can certainly elicit a bite or scratch from a frightened cat, and many children in fact do get bitten or scratched by cats. A healthy cat is not likely to cause significant harm provided the wound is thoroughly cleaned out and there are no extenuating circumstances. However, one should be proactive to prevent such occurrences. Trim your cat's nails and socialize them gradually to the various noises, smells, and movements of an infant or young child. Teach toddlers and young children how to properly pet Kitty and supervise them so that everyone enjoys the interaction. By preparing your cat for your child's arrival and by continuing to supervise and train each of them together (cat and infant) that interaction can be calm and enjoyable, you are setting everyone up for success.

Okay, now some of you may be wondering, what about parasites? Your cat should be checked out by your veterinarian prior to your baby,s arrival not only to ensure your kitty's health but also to be sure Kitty is free of parasites. However, there is one real danger than many people do not learn about unless they are told by their OB-GYN to beware of it- toxoplasmosis. Some cats carry a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii that is shed in the feces, and if a pregnant woman is exposed while scooping the litterbox, for instance, and then ingests it (perhaps by not washing her hands sufficiently and then having a snack), the parasite can cause significant harm to the unborn child, including blindness, mental disability, or brain damage. A mother who has already been exposed to the parasite and is immune has less to worry about than a mother who has not been exposed, but regardless, this danger can largely be averted by having someone else (someone not pregnant) change the litterbox. Another good way to keep safe is to ensure that the litterbox is scooped frequently, as any shed parasites do not become infectious until a day or more after they are shed. If you can not find someone else to change the litterbox for you, wear disposable gloves and thoroughly wash your hands in warm water with soap afterwards- pretend you are a surgeon going into surgery, and go ahead and be a bit paranoid about your hand washing. Also, be aware that cats who are exclusively inside are much less likely to carry the parasite than cats who do go outside. If you are pregnant, wear gloves any time you have contact with dirt (such as gardening) regardless of whether or not you own a cat- stray cats may eliminate in your yard and the dirt around that area may be infectious.

Okay, so we need to avoid contact with litter, we need to supervise the cat and the infant, and we need to keep the cat out of the infant's sleeping area. How do we do that last one, anyway? One easy way is simply to close the door. With each of my children, we routinely kept the door of the nursery closed during the last month or so of pregnancy, just to get the cats used to not being able to enter that room. With that preparation, we had no trouble once the baby was born, because the cats were already used to the room being off limits. Some people use a Dutch door or install a screen door for the nursery so they can still look in on the infant without entering the room, but still have an effective means of keeping the cat out.

If this is not an option, never fear. My next favorite option is a crib tent. This mosquito net- like device is designed to keep climbing tots IN the crib, but also works great at keeping cats out of the crib. Be sure to close it up when the baby is in the crib and also when the baby is out of the crib. You may have luck for a while by conditioning the cats to stay out of the baby's sleeping area before the baby actually comes, by coming the mattress with aluminum foil or double-sided tape. The reason cats love cribs in the first place is because we put lots of soft cuddly things in there for Baby, and cats like that too. They do not like aluminum foil or sticky things like tape, so if they expect aluminum foil or tape all the time, they will lose the desire to get in the crib. Of course, you will have to remove the foil or tape while the baby is in the crib, and you may have a curious cat test the crib out repeatedly, so this is not my favorite solution, but it may help you in the preparation stage. Just don't rely on it exclusively after the baby is born. Instead, after the baby is born, use a crib tent or keeping the cat out of the nursery as your primary means of managing the environment.

Unless your cat is aggressive or excessively fearful (not coming out of a hiding place, for instance), or if there is a medical reason why your infant can not be around your cat, there really isn't much reason to rehome your cat simply because you are having a baby. With a little preparation and some supervising your cat and your infant can live happily together in the same house. Who knows? They may even become the best of friends, and cats certainly can teach little ones a lot of wonderful life lessons such as responsibility, compassion, self-control, love, and friendship.

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