Lifestyle

Busting a myth: Do cats kill babies?

It’s a warning that’s been passed down to new mothers for generations: Keep the family cat away from the baby or risk death by smothering.

But do cats really smother babies and kill them?

Local animal experts say no.

“That almost sounds like some old wives’ tale or something. Something from the old country,” said Sarah Carson, a veterinarian at Sacajawea Healthcare for Pets in Federal Way.

Carson said she guesses the myth is a result of ancient beliefs that cats are symbols of evil. Some cultures in the 13th and 14th centuries believed that cats would steal a baby’s soul.

Those who believe cats smother babies often suggest that they do it because they are attracted to the milk on the baby’s breath. There are also suggestions that they do it because of jealousy.

“I would say that that’s not a fear a new parent should have,” Carson said.

According to an article on Snopes.com, a Web site dedicated to debunking common myths, the only recent case of a baby reportedly dying from suffocation by cat was in 2000, when a mother found her six-week-old son dead in his crib with the family cat resting on top of the baby’s face. An autopsy later determined the baby died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and the cat’s proximity was a coincidence.

Although cats are unlikely to maliciously suffocate or smother a baby, they should not be left unattended with a baby or allowed to sleep with a baby, Carson said. They should, however, be allowed supervised access to the baby.

“They should be introduced to the baby. They shouldn’t just be kept off-limits completely,” Carson said.

Cats with different personalities will each react differently to a new baby, Carson said. Some cats may get along with babies while others dislike them. A cat will give plenty of warning if there is a potential problem.

“Of course a cat’s going to hiss. Cats don’t hide their feelings at all,” Carson said.

Most pets who are uncomfortable around a baby will simply leave the room, Carson said. Cats should be provided with their own space in another room or somewhere up high where they can escape.

“Everyone wants their own space,” she said.

In addition to removing cats from the nursery while a baby is sleeping, new parents with cats need to be certain their pets have current vaccinations and have been checked for parasites and diseases. There are several zoonotic diseases to be aware of that can be passed between animals and humans, Carson said. A type of larvae found in animals has been known to cause blindness in children. Pets in homes with children should be checked by a veterinarian annually.

A few simple precautions can ensure that babies and pets live together in harmony, Carson said. Children raised with pets in the home are less likely to develop allergies and more likely to develop an appreciation for animals as adults. They are also less likely to fear animals when older.

“I do think that children really benefit from growing up with pets,” she said. “Owning pets is a really important part of growing up.”

Contact Margo Hoffman: mhoffman@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

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