By Monica Weymouth
There’s a lot to think about when you have a baby on the way. From bassinets to bottles, cribs to car seats, the preparation can be intense. And while we hate to add to your to-do your list, it’s important to remember that other small family member who enjoys your undivided attention and isn’t shy about waking you up for breakfast: namely, the cat.
Your cat, you see, has ruled the roost up until now, and a new baby represents a major life change for her, too. The good news is that there’s plenty you can do to ease the transition and prepare kitty for a new sibling.
Long before it’s time to bring baby home, take some time to evaluate your cat’s quality of life today as an only “child.”
“Some things you can do to prepare for any stressor is to make sure beforehand that kitty has adequate resources and is generally as healthy, mentally and physically, as she can be,” says certified cat behavior consultant Dilara Goksel Parry. “This means scheduling a vet exam, taking a look at your home, and seeing how you can enhance her well-being.”
Does your cat have scratching posts, cat trees, and vertical spaces to explore? Is her litter box kept clean and in a quiet, accessible place? Does she have toys and puzzles to keep her mentally stimulated? A happy cat is, generally, a more accepting and adaptable cat.
Now is also the time to establish a routine to make your cat—a proud creature of habit—feel secure as other changes happen around her. Continuing this schedule post-baby will help to ease the transition.
“The best way to avoid behavioral problems is to keep your cat’s routine as intact as possible,” says certified cat behavior consultant Jeylinne Enriquez. “Continue feeding on the same schedule, make time to give them some attention and, most importantly, play with them.” If your cat knows that she’ll get your undivided attention later in the day, she’ll be more likely to cut you some slack when you’re focused on the baby.
Just as playtime creates bonds with baby, it will strengthen your relationship with your cat, as well. Enriquez recommends two 20-minute sessions per day.
Your new bundle of joy arrives with a bundle of foreign smells and strange sounds. Gradually introducing some of these new stimuli will help kitty adjust once it’s a full-time arrangement.
“I see the cat as the ‘older brother,’ so ideally you’ll start preparing your cat soon after learning you’re pregnant,” says Enriquez. “Start by using baby oil, Vaseline, or any lotions you might use with your baby on your skin. This will create a positive association between baby odors and the parents.”
While you’re probably not in any rush to hear a crying baby, your cat may benefit from getting acclimated to the noise. Parry recommends playing recordings of crying for short amounts of time while gradually increasing the volume and duration. For best results, pair the experience with treats so kitty sheds any negative associations with the unpleasant noise.
Regardless of how much homework you do, remember that no two cats or babies are alike. “The experience of your baby will always be a little different, so even if you prepare, expect some adjustment time,” advises Parry.
When was the last time your cat ignored fresh sheets? Or declined to jump on a counter? Baby’s new crib and changing table are more alluring than catnip, so it’s important to establish a paws-off policy early.
For starters, add the new furniture as soon as possible and allow kitty time to accept these new items into his territory. After the items take on the smells of the house, Parry recommends introducing some barriers to make the crib and changing table less accessible—cue the boxes of diapers—as the new surfaces lose novelty.
It may also be beneficial to buy your cat some new furniture of her own. “When we want to discourage a behavior, we should be thinking along the lines of, what do we want kitty to do instead?” says Parry. “A couple months before baby is a great time to add a sturdy, tall cat tree or two. These will also be very beneficial when your baby is a toddler—they allow for kitty to get away if she needs to.”
Now may also be a good time to look into clicker training. By teaching your cat two basic commands—“get off this” and “go to that”—you can establish both boundaries and acceptable behaviors.
“This way, you have a positive alternative for helping your cat know the right places to be instead of having to repeatedly correct them for being in the wrong place,” says certified cat behavior consultant Elise Gouge. “If you give your cat a lot of reinforcement—food, brushing, play—for doing what you ask, he will be much more likely to gravitate to those behaviors.”
You’ll have plenty of guests wanting to meet your new addition. In all the hustle and bustle, remember to set aside some time to introduce baby to kitty.
All interactions should be supervised, and never forced—take cues from your cat and remain calm, advises Parry. “If kitty seems stressed by the baby, allow her to retreat, and make sure her resources are easily accessible to her,” she says. “In most instances, if you go slow and continue to meet kitty’s needs, you will be able to make the interactions work.”
As always, rewards for positive interactions will help move things along. “If your cat shows a positive behavior, be ready with a treat—this is key,” says Enriquez. “If he doesn’t, don’t punish your cat or force him to come to you. Keep trying at different times and reward positive behaviors, regardless of how small they are.”
Above all, enjoy this exciting time with your growing family, and congratulations on the new addition!