A couple of weeks ago, my 10-week-old baby was staring up at the clouds when along came my cat and nipped the air near her arm. Butters then scuttled away as if she knew she'd been naughty. It all happened so fast that I didn't even have time to scold her.
As a new mum with a head full of 'what-if' worries, the idea of my cat's canines piercing Olivia's butter-soft skin made me sick to the stomach. Unfortunately, it wasn't the first time that Butters had acted out of line since we'd brought Olivia home from hospital. A few nights earlier, she'd actually chased after me in the backyard and bit me on the ankle. It had been hard enough to draw blood.
Eight-year-old Butters has always been a bit of a biter, but I'd noticed that she'd recently upped the ante. It had gotten to the point that I was scarcely patting her because she so frequently bit me (albeit much more softly) in return. Yet my husband and I had also been surprised by how sweet she was towards little Olivia. She'd plop down at her feet on the activity mat, would sit on the sink during bath time and seemed to lend her moral support during nappy changes as she swished around at our feet.
But would Butters bite my baby?
I dashed off an email to Applied Cat Behaviourist Dr Kim Kendall of the Chatswood Cat Palace and by the following week I was driving across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with my cat and baby having a crying competition in the backseat.
Cats don't get jealous of babies
There was good news and bad news from Dr Kendall.
First, the good.
Cats do not get jealous of babies.
"In fact, they welcome the routine a baby brings to the household," said Dr Kendall.
"Cats think it's great. I knew an anxious cat who was peeing around the house and its owners were worried that the cat would pee on the baby. But no, it was very happy because now there was a routine, whereas before its owners would come home at all hours."
Cats also enjoy the extra time its owners spend sitting around caring for a newborn.
"As far as they're concerned, sitting next to you while you feed the baby is fantastic. They consider that quality time."
But that's not to say that a cat will approve of all the changes a baby brings. Butters probably does feel miffed about not getting the attention she was used to in the good old pre-baby days – though it's not that she sees herself as being second-best.
"Talk of a change in pecking order is irrelevant to a cat," explains Dr Kendall. "In her world, she's top and nothing else matters. So she just thinks that you've lost your mind and aren't paying as much attention to her. She's not terribly impressed. She's tried to get your attention and that's what the bite was about."
Photo: Baby Olivia and Butters, Jessica Mudditt / Supplied
The specific problem with Butters is that she's a natural born hunter, and she's one of the 30 per cent of cats who bite rather than scratch.
"If she was in the wild, she'd be hunting for three hours a day. And no matter how many toys or other distractions you provide, cats still want to bite something that bleeds."
It's a scary sentiment, but Dr Kendall was quick to reassure me.
"I've never seen a cat try to hunt a baby. And cats do understand that babies are a different species and they will usually cut them a break."
Strategies to reduce unwanted behaviour
Ironically, Butters' bad behaviour is likely due to the fact that she didn't have a mother of her own for long enough. My husband got her as a tiny kitten from a pet shop in Bangladesh – we're pretty sure she was less than eight weeks old. That early separation meant that she missed out on learning important behavioural skills, such as where the line is and not to cross it.
"She doesn't have anger management skills, basically. She hasn't learnt to inhibit her bite because she didn't grow up with another cat."
There are ways that we can teach her not to pounce, such as by squirting lemon-scented Glade in her vicinity (cats hate the smell of citrus).
We also need to give her more cuddles. But if things get worse, our options include turning her into an outside cat or single-room cat, homing her out to a farm where she can hunt to heart's content, trying her on Prozac (though it risks making things worse), removing her canine teeth or even putting her down - which we would never do!
Here's hoping that we can manage Butters' behaviour so that she remains a beloved part of our family.
Words of wisdom from the Cat Whisperer
Smothering: it's a myth
When I was pregnant, so many people mentioned the possibility of our cat smothering our baby that we bought a bassinet with a mosquito-proof mesh cover. Dr Kendall said that we needn't have worried (but of course, a cat and a baby should never be left alone together).
"No baby has ever been found with cat hair in its windpipe," she said.
"Well, except for one. However, I talked to forensic experts and what in fact happened was that the woman was psychotic and had claw marks all over her arms. She'd held the cat over the baby's mouth."
Skip simulating sounds of crying babies
My husband and I regularly cued up Spotify's 'Crying Baby' playlist, as I'd heard that it helps prepare a cat for the arrival of a noisy newborn. Dr Kendall said we needn't have bothered.
"We forget how much of a cat's world is smell. Your cat can smell you're pregnant before your pregnancy test goes off; it's the same as for dogs. They know things are different and most cats are flexible enough to accept that."
On declaring a room out-of-bounds
The one thing you should do ahead of your baby's arrival is decide whether your cat will be allowed to sleep in the same room as the baby. The answer is up to you, but if it's a no, install a screen door (electric fences are "unfair").
"Bear in mind that according to research, cat hair seems to be immuno-protective for babies; they're less likely to have asthma if they have a cat in their room for the first six months of life."
If you will allow the cat in the nursery, install a shelf so that they can look down while the baby is being changed.
"Cats don't particularly want to be up close because the baby squirms and farts and all that sort of stuff. So put up a ledge where they can watch without being in the middle of it all."