A few years ago when I was expecting my first child, I heard a few things about pets and children that seemed hysterically wide of the mark. Cats in particular seem to come in for a lot of bad press.
Perhaps it was just that the nice lady leading our maternity class wasn’t a “cat person”, but I suspect it’s a wider PR issue for these oft-misunderstood creatures. For cats, unlike dogs, seem to polarise opinion. You either love them or fear them; very few people have a neutral position.
It seems that their aloof-ness, tendency to scratch people they don’t like and their generally stealthy nature can be quite unsettling.
Which is perhaps why the advice in the prenatal class was so negative. Our tutor’s recommendation for cat owners was to “boot your moggies out of the house or build an outdoor pen so they didn’t come into contact with the child”.
The insinuation being that there was this huge body of medical evidence that cats are somehow a big risk to babies.
The basis for this ‘professional’ advice was that cats like heat and would therefore be attracted, like a heat seeking missile, to the warmth generated by your sleeping baby, presenting a risk of suffocation should the cat decide to sleep on the child’s face.
Appalled, but feeling like I should do some further reading, just in case I had missed the whole ‘Cat vs Baby’ thing, I embarked on some research.
Cat vs Baby
There are millions of homes where cats have cohabited with babies over the years. So with this degree of contact you’d think that there would be some solid evidence of ‘cat-on-baby’ incidents.
A scan of Google revealed only two suspected cases both grossly misreported by the press with the attention grabbing headlines:
“Sleeping cat suffocates baby”
“Inquest told family cat 'could' have suffocated baby”
A closer read of the articles revealed that no such proof existed, and any evidence was circumstantial. In one case there was cat hair in the cot, so the possibility couldn’t be ruled out. Hardly the definitive proof I was searching for.
I’d lay down the challenge to Quincey himself to find a flat surface in my house that does not have cat hair on it! Clearly not a cat owner in the Coroner’s office that day.
Sadly, in today’s society, because the explanation sounds vaguely plausible and was given weight by this kind of sloppy journalism the myth is perpetuated.
After a couple of hours scouring the journals and internet I came up with absolutely nothing definitive about cats suffocating babies what so ever. Horrible, tragic cases of cot death, yes. But smothering at the hands of demonic felines? No.
Six tips for expectant parents with cats
OK, so let me give you my advice for a happy life where cats and kids can live comfortably alongside each other.
Tip 1: The risk of your cat suffocating your baby, while theoretically possible, seems to be non-existent in reality. I mean think about it. Most of the cats I know (my own included) like the quiet life. As such they would be as likely to spend time around a screaming newborn, as an Australian would be to cheer for an England win in the cricket. However, in the interests of promoting responsible pet ownership it would be wise to avoid letting your cat into the nursery unattended. If you are super-paranoid then use a crib-net to prevent them jumping in the cot. another tip is to line your cot with aluminium foil (before you have the baby - not such a smart idea afterwards). Cats hate the sound when they land on it and so will quickly associate the cot with a scary noise and steer clear.
Tip 2: Dad has to change the litter trays each day while mum is pregnant – Toxoplasmosis is a nasty parasite that can be found in cat poo. If you ingest the parasite then it can cause serious harm to a developing foetus. So better for pregnant mums not to go near the kitty litter at all.
Tip 3: Wash all worktops, your hands and all your vegetables before preparing meals – again we’re trying to prevent toxoplasmosis and your cat might just jump on the kitchen work surfaces when you are not looking.
Tip 4: Make sure the cats are wormed each month to kill off intestinal worms that can harm children.
Tip 5: Never leave infants unattended with cats, (or dogs for that matter). As the owner of a pet, you are responsible for its behaviour. Don’t put an animal in a position where it feels threatened or out of control.
Tip 6: Use Feliway calming pheromone to reduce stress for your cat during the first 12 months with your newborn. And in between nappy changes and midnight feeds, try to make time for a few extra kitty cuddles to avoid your first ‘child’ feeling too left out.
If you want to check out the "evidence" for and against then the links to the content are below.
http://www.thefreelibrary.com/BABY+DEATH%3A+CAT+NOT+TO+BLAME.-a068791407 - rebuttal of the case
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1379196/Sleeping-cat-suffocates-baby.html# - sloppy reporting
http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2011/04/02/inquest-told-family-cat-could-have-suffocated-baby-91466-28446643/ - very tenuous