Ask an Expert: Pets and newborns

Q: Is there any truth to the rumor that cats will suck the breath out of babies? And are there any other reasons we should find new homes for our pets before we have our baby?

Answer provided by Firmine Jean-Baptiste, M.D., Obstetrician-Gynecologist at Columbia Women's Clinic

There is simply no evidence to support the persistent old wives’ tale that cats will suck the breath out of a child. Cats may want to sleep next to a baby, but they are likely just attracted to the baby’s warmth. I wouldn’t advise letting your cat sleep in your baby’s crib, however; if the baby sleeps with its mouth pressed up against the cat’s body, it may pose a SIDS risk. Cover the crib with screen or netting to prevent your cat from getting in.

There is no reason to get rid of your pets when you have a baby on the way. The transition may be difficult for your pets, but you can make it easier for them by preparing them for the infant’s arrival and paying lots of attention to your pet after the baby comes home. In the weeks before you deliver, you may want to play tapes at home with the sound of an infant crying. It’s also a good idea to begin exposing your pets to blankets, lotions and powders that smell like a baby. Talk in a soothing voice to your pet while letting them smell these baby items. After the baby comes home, give your pet time to adjust. Reward them for good behavior around your baby, and pet and play with them even more than usual.

There is a chance your cat will spray on the baby’s things; this could be a sign of affection, possessiveness, or aggression. If this happens, talk to your veterinarian about behavioral therapy. In general, however, unless your pet begins to feel neglected, you shouldn’t see any behavior problems.

Pregnant women should not change cat litter boxes, as they’re at high risk of acquiring the parasitic disease toxoplasmosis and passing it on to their child. Once the baby is home, it is best to keep your litter boxes out of the baby’s reach, and always wash your hands after changing the litter.

Because newborns typically don't have allergic reactions, allergies to pet dander are very unlikely during your baby’s first weeks of life. To reduce the risk of allergic reactions as your baby grows, I’d advise washing the baby's hands after he or she pets the animal, and (if possible) giving the pet a bath once or twice a week.

Be sure to model appropriate, gentle treatment of pets to your child. Show your baby how to pet your animals, and let your baby know that grabbing, tail-pulling, restraining or otherwise hurting the pet is not o.k. Taking these simple steps can help ensure that your baby and your pet will tolerate each other, and in most cases, love each other.

For more information: Toxoplasmosis (National Library of Medicine) April 2002