Updated November 28, 2020
I saw another one last week: a cat I knew with an owner I didn’t. “My daughter is pregnant and she’s afraid the cat might smother her baby.”
I didn’t argue; as a father I know how strong the urge to protect our children is. But it got me thinking: does it ever happen? And what about other dangers like toxoplasmosis?
The Risk Of Smothering
I did a search of the medical literature plus news archives and found four suspected cases since 1980. For three of these the only evidence was that the cat was in the same room. I’m highly skeptical of these.
Given the rates of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) at the time, the chance the cats did it is almost zero. Additionally, if the cat really did do it, why wasn’t he or she still sleeping on the baby?
The fourth case sounds plausible though. This was a baby under blankets in a pram left unattended. A cat hopped in for the warmth (this is northern Sweden) probably unaware there was a baby underneath.
Do Cats Really Smother Babies?
In a cot, I think the answer is no. Here’s why:
- Babies freak most cats out: anyone who’s brought a baby home knows this. Your bigger problem is getting your cat to relax.
- Cats aren’t malicious: yes, cats are their own masters, but they are never jealous or spiteful, despite what people say. A cat just doesn’t rate the baby as a threat.
- Even if the cat is friendly (like the picture), sitting on the baby would be crazy when there’s plenty of space. It’s still a good idea to supervise cats around babies though.
Keeping Cats Out Of Cots & Cribs
A modern spacious cot without pillows and toys is usually of little interest to a cat. If instead it seems attractive, try covering the bedding with bubble wrap, double-sided sticky tape or aluminium foil (without the baby of course!) With luck your cat will never try it again.
If they are still interested, I would ask myself why my cat preferred this unlikely spot. It’s probably because they don’t have a bed they like (yet!). Here’s Grendel for example in ‘Castle Smug’ with friend.
Alternatively you may just need to keep the door closed. That will also fix the greatest problem most new parents have with cats: interrupting carefully planned sleeps.
As for cat nets, I tried these. If you want to make a comfy cat hammock above your baby, they work perfectly. In other words, mine actually attracted the cat!
Why Cats Get Blamed
Reports of cats suffocating babies go right back to the 17th century. It’s probably no coincidence that this is around the time of the witch trials.
I am certain that every single smothering was really a case of SIDS. Anyone of my age can remember how common, frightening and unexplained it was. We all knew someone who had lost a baby.
In the research effort that went into solving the riddle, every possible risk factor was explored. Never were cats implicated. Thanks to finding the real reasons, SIDS has become very rare (click here for current recommendations).
Other Cat-Baby Dangers
Here are other possible health risks from cats.
Toxoplasmosis is a parasite passed in the faeces of cats that can damage unborn babies. Although that sounds scary, here are the facts:
- ‘Toxo’ is mostly caught from undercooked meat or contaminated soil
- Cats almost never transmit the parasite directly
- Faeces cleaned up within 24 hours of passing are not yet infective
Prevention is straightforward, and fully explained in our page on toxoplasmosis in cats.
Ringworm is a fungal skin infection. It is especially common in very young kittens, and can cause severe infections in children.
Prevention is by getting kittens from good vet-checked sources like the RSPCA and Animal Welfare League. Otherwise, come in for a free kitten check as soon as you can and we’ll run the UV light over them.
Scratches and Bites
The major health problem from cats is the obvious one, but it needs saying. If your cat is cornered or scared, they can lash out.
The chances of a cat attacking a baby unprovoked are extremely low, and I’ll bet these cats have previous ‘form’. The main risk comes when kids start crawling and the cat feels cornered.
All I can say here is to know your cat’s reactions, supervise if necessary and make sure there are escape routes available. Read what to do if your cat scratches or bites here.
Cats & Babies
In conclusion, I promise that I’ve presented the truth as I see it, not some ‘keep your cat at all costs’ spiel. Cats are compatible, low-risk, and even beneficial to babies.
Cat allergy and asthma in humans have been shown to be significantly lower if exposure occurs as a baby. Babies also love watching cats- our favourite way to stop crying was “where’s the puss?”.
Cats, being willing to leave if they don’t like it, also teach responsible animal handling in a way dogs never can. That makes cats way safer than dogs too.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!