Old Cat Meets New Baby: Plan Ahead for Changes in Routine
My children grew up with animals, which I’m sure surprises no one. After all, I’m a farm boy who grew up to be a veterinarian, and my wife is as big of an animal lover as I am. Our two children, now grown and gone, have always been surrounded by pets, and we wouldn’t have had it any other way. Our daughter, Vetstreet pet behavior expert Mikkel Becker, is raising her daughter the same way.
But that doesn’t mean I recommend parents throw caution to the wind when it comes to pets and kids. Parents need to work with their veterinarians to keep pets healthy and parasite-free for the good of the entire family, not just the pets. And children need to learn the rules for safe pet handling, especially frequent hand washing.
Don't Worry Too Much
When you’re expecting your first child, though, you’re not thinking about that level of specifics. Along with getting the nursery ready and collecting all the new baby gear you’ll need, you no doubt will be worried about how your pet will handle the new addition, especially if your “first child” is an older cat.
Don’t worry; I’ve got you covered on this one. Some of the bad things you’ve heard about cats and babies — including those shared breathlessly by “helpful” friends, relatives and coworkers – just aren’t true, especially the old myth about jealous felines trying to suffocate infants. Everything else can be dealt with if you just use some common sense. Or as I always say, lose the risk and keep the pet.
Prepare for the Change of Routine
All cats are big on routine and that's especially true of older ones. Start changing your cat's routine gradually in the weeks before your due date so that when you come home with your baby, your cat is already comfortable with the new schedule. That’ll leave him much better to cope with all the other changes yet to come. Here are some tips:
Get that senior wellness check now. If your cat is due for a regular exam in the next few months, consider moving up the date. Getting your cat’s general health in good order now, before the baby arrives, will help him in the stressful months to come. And it’s one less thing you’ll have to cope with later when you're dealing with an infant. Take care of any health issues right away; for example, if your senior cat is hyperthyroid, the increased activity levels common to the condition will make you wish for your calm older cat back.
Buy feline pheromones. Consider getting Feliway from your veterinarian or pet supply store. It’s a synthetic product that mimics pheromones produced by cats and can help some of them feel calmer and happier. There are also room diffusers to spread what I call “Kumbaya in a bottle” throughout the house. This may help your cat feel more relaxed and help him deal with all the changes going on around him.
Set up a safe room. If you’ll be claiming the room where your cat’s litterbox is located for the nursery, make the change as soon as possible. Set your cat up with a new “safe room” with box, food, water and places to scratch and sleep. Get him using his box reliably by limiting his access to all but that room for a while; once he's settled in his new space, give him free range over the rest of the house. Later, when you bring home the baby, you can limit him to that room again, giving him a place to feel comfortable and out of the way while everyone settles in — and visitors come calling. (And by the way: Someone else should be handling the litter chores while you're pregnant.)
Introduce the nursery. Allow your cat to get used to the changes in your home. Take a little time to give your cat affection and treats while you sit and dream of the future. Start the good association now by making your cat happy and comfortable in the nursery. The pheromone diffuser will help your cat relax and feel good in the new area.
Ready, Set, Baby
Before you come home from the hospital, put your cat back in his “safe room” and close the door. Since you’ve laid the groundwork and all his needs are being met, he’ll just settle in comfortably for the first couple of weeks, as long he’s being visited for play and petting, getting fresh food and water, and having the litterbox cleaned frequently. (Remember, cats sleep the vast majority of their lives, so that’s what your cat will be doing.) Send in some items with your baby’s scent to get the cat used to the new family member.
After the first wave of visitors has come and gone and you are in your new routine, open the door and let your cat explore everything new. Allow him to be in the nursery with you and the baby, but never alone. Again, it’s highly unlikely anything could or would happen, but why take a chance? Interactions between children and pets should always be supervised until children are old enough to understand how to handle animals safely.
Since you’ve set your cat up as best you can for the changes, chances are your old pal will settle in just fine and come to love (or least tolerate) the new addition. If you have problems, though, such as litterbox avoidance or other stress-related issues, don’t cross your fingers and hope for a resolution — ask your veterinarian for help. She will be able to offer solutions and medications that will help you over the rough spots, because chances are she has gone through this herself and knows how to make it easier for everyone.
As a new parent, you have your hands full already. So let your family veterinarian help both you and your cat.