Our cats are creatures of habit. Over time in our homes, they have built up a meticulous mental list of things that they have vetted and deemed ‘safe’, often sealing the deal with a ritual brush of their scent to mark that this door frame, or chair, or new letter sitting on the doormat has been checked, okayed and is now claimed as part of their ‘safe zone’. For a cat, prowling around their kingdom and catching whiffs of objects they’ve given the scent-depositing brush of approval to is about as comforting as it gets. To a cat it says: Everything in here is a-okay…. I should know, I’ve checked.
It goes without saying that the arrival of a newborn baby, bringing with it new sounds, smells, new no-go areas of the home, and new schedules, visitors and rules, has the potential to completely overwhelm our cautious kitties’ capacity for newness. With so much to take in and process, their thoughts could spiral to: Nothing in here is OK! I’ll never be able to check all of this scary new stuff. I’m just going to assume that it’s ALL terrifying.
But don’t worry! With a little advanced planning you can make the transition a breeze for your cat. All it takes is letting your cat work through each little bit of ‘new’ one piece at a time, so as not to overwhelm them – rather than freaking them out with a whole heap of ‘new’ when baby comes home.
That means that the more time you can dedicate to the task in advance, before baby comes home, the better. Here is a list of things that you can do to help your cat get used to a wonderful new world with baby in it:
1. REDECORATING THE NURSERY
If you’re planning to redecorate a room in your house for the arrival of baby, your cat is going to want to know all about it. It’s best if you can break the job down into a couple of stages e.g. remove all of the furniture one day, repaint the next, which will give your cat time to process the changes as they happen.
As you make those changes, let your cat explore the area so that it can conduct its ‘safety inspection rounds’. You can stack the odds in favour of these changes getting kitty’s stamp of approval by collecting their scent on a clean cotton glove or sock in advance and wiping it over the surfaces, which will make them feel reassured: Huh. I already signed off on this room? In that case, a cursory inspection should do!
There are likely to be areas or objects that you’d like to be off limits for your cat once the baby arrives – e.g. the whole nursery, or the crib, or baby’s pram. The key is to foster an environment where the cat feels like it has signed off on these objects and is calm in their presence, but doesn’t feel rewarded for actively interacting with them.
To achieve this, during the ‘inspection rounds’ deliver treats to your cat when they show disinterested calm towards these objects, and deliver the treats away from the objects - e.g. by offering the treat just outside the room, or throwing the treat on the opposite side of the room from the object in question.
Once the safety inspection rounds are concluded and your cat is comfortable with the changes, start sticking to the new off-limits rules. (The reason: It’s much harder to train a cat out of sleeping in the crib if they’ve decided it’s a super comfortable place to be!)
If the whole nursery is out of bounds simply shut the door. Otherwise, you can carry on with the process of rewarding disinterested exploration with food-based treats and dissuading active exploration of out-of-bounds objects like the crib by gently picking them up and moving them away without any fuss. They’ll soon get the picture.
If you have more than one cat in your household it’s a good idea to let them each do their ‘safety inspection rounds’ of the new areas one by one. Don’t forget to transfer each of their scents individually to the new items too, because each cat has a signature scent!
2. NEW ROUTINE
It’s almost inevitable that when the baby arrives, your routine will change radically, as will the amount of time you can dedicate to your cat. It’s tempting to use the time before baby comes to lavish your cat will all of the attention it will miss after baby comes home, but that can be counterproductive, as it makes the change all the more drastic to your cat.
The best thing you can do is use the time during pregnancy to gradually switch your cat over to its new routine. Try moving playtime to times of day when you are likely to have a second set of hands in the home once baby comes – e.g. in the evenings when you know your partner will be home too. That way one of you will be able to look after baby and one of you will be able to dedicate some time to playing with your cat.
If you’ve been the sole caregiver for your cat up until now, it’s also worth getting them used to playing with other members of the household – that way you can be a bit more flexible about who interacts with the cat once baby comes.
Finally, now is the time to invest in (or make) some self-play toys and activity feeders for your cat, so that they can relieve boredom and burn off excess energy without always requiring a human’s input. As with all of this newness, don’t just decide that today is the ‘New World’ of playing at new times, using a new activity feeder and not getting the million and one cuddles they are used to! Make all changes gradual and reward your cat along the way.
Incidentally – and this holds for all of the items on this checklist - if your cat is showing signs of being unsure about any of the new things that you’ve introduced, and thinking about NOT giving it their kitty stamp of approval, you can deploy the treats and it will usually swing things the other way: Oh this thing comes with treats? Well then…!
3. SMELL DESENSITISATION
For cats, smell reigns supreme – it’s a large part of how they navigate the world, identify objects and people and build up their ‘safe zone’ of calm. Baby is going to bring it with a whole lot of new smells, so it’s a great idea to try and accustom your cat to each of those in advance.
Try applying small amounts of the baby lotions, talcum powders etc. that you plan to use to your own skin, and then reward your cat with treats for calm sniffing of them on you.
It’s a little bit trickier to get your cat used to the smell of baby itself, but if there’s time after the birth it’s worth asking somebody to bring a blanket with baby’s scent on home, in advance of baby’s arrival. Pop the blanket near the cat, but at a safe enough distance that they feel like they are in charge of the situation, and then reward them with treats for calm exploration of the blanket. It’s a good idea to use the same technique as you used in the nursery – delivering the treats away from the blanket – so that your cat doesn’t associate being near to baby as a great way to get treats!
4. SOUND DESENSITISATION
Just as with the new smells, it’s a good idea to gradually acclimatise your cat to the sounds of a baby in advance.
The best way to do this is to download one of the many clips of a baby crying that you can find online (e.g. here). Choose a moment when your cat is relaxed and start by playing the crying sound at very low volume. If your cat stays relaxed and calm, reward them with treats and/or stroking. If they show signs of fear, stop, and start again later on but with the crying at an even lower volume.
As long as you constantly work at a volume that doesn’t peturb your cat you can gradually increase the volume over several exposures, continually rewarding them for a calm, relaxed response until they learn that the sound of crying is just part of the background noise that they can ignore.
5. ADD SOME EXTRA CAT SPACES
The time before the baby comes is also a really good time to review the architecture of your home for your cat. When baby arrives, it is likely to bring with it a wave of new visitors to the home too – so your cat will need places where it feels safe during these encounters.
Most cats feel safest watching the world from high vantage points, so think about whether you can add any more of these to your home. Could you pop a shelf up that they could sit on, place a cardboard box or cat bed on top of a wardrobe or cupboard, or move the furniture around a little to help them access new high spaces (e.g. push a chair close enough to a shelf so that your cat can climb up).
If you have a multi-cat household it’s also worth doing a check of food and litter trays and checking that you have enough of these dotted around in very different parts of the home (remember, you need a minimum of one for each cat, plus one more, for each of these resources). If the onset of no-go areas is going to change access to any of these, it’s an idea to start gradually moving these now.
And that’s really it for the pre-baby preparations! Once baby comes home, continue your cat’s training – reward them with food based treats every time they choose to use one of your allocated ‘cat’ spaces, rather than interacting with the baby spaces. Once the behaviour is trained in you can start to reward your cat more sporadically. In fact, research shows that once you’ve trained your cat on a particular behaviour, the best way to keep them trained is to downgrade the rewards to sporadic treats. It uses the same psychology that makes us such suckers for fruit machines – when rewards are sporadic and unpredictable, we – and our cats – end up trying even harder to elicit them. In other words – keep the treats sporadic and unpredictable and kitty will always be on best behaviour!
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences about this week’s Sunday Read. Have you been through this process of introducing cat to baby – how did it go? Or if you’re planning an introduction soon are there any stages of it that you’re still unsure about? Join in the discussion in the comments below, or over on Instagram or Facebook (both @supakitstore).
Bradshaw, J. & Ellis, S. The Trainable Cat. Basic Books, 2016, pp117 - 126.
Vitale Shreve, K. & Udell, M. (2017). Stress, security, and scent: The influence of chemical signals on the social lives of domestic cats and implications for applied settings. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 187: 69-76.
Overall, K. Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2013, pp 767- 770.