How to handle an episode of aggression by cat toward baby
June 13, 2016 2:55 AM   Subscribe

Our older female cat just got annoyed with the baby and tried to bite the baby. What should we do?

The kid is four months old and wasn't hitting or even touching the cat, just making that horrible creaking/shrieking noise that four month old kids make. The cat yowled at the kid and then, when he didn't stop making noise, tried to bite him on the head. Since I was right next to the kid, I was able to snatch him away before she could make contact.

At four months he isn't crawling or walking yet so he doesn't chase the cat. He has probably kicked her a few times while laying on his back and kicking. I move him or her out of range when I see this happening.

The cat, a spayed female, has been with us for five years, she's bonded with me (mother of kid) and until the kid arrived, slept curled up with me. Now the kid sleeps with me and in the ((( arrangement, I'm the first (, the kid is the second ( and the cat is the third (

Until this point, she's been fine with the kid. Mostly ignored him. No yowling, no swatting, no biting until today.

The cat is our first cat of two. She hasn't adjusted well to our second cat, a neutered adolescent male. She is clearly jealous of him and will enthusiastically interfere to get you to pet her when you're petting him. She swats at him fairly frequently - this is despite our efforts to give lots of attention to both cats, the presence of many nice places for cats to hide, good cat napping locations, high places for them to observe us all and three litter boxes. She has refused to play since his arrival two years ago. And we've tried every kind of toy (string-related, dangly, small battable, catnip-laden, laser pointer, crunchy, rolling, fuzzy, those ones that look like a fishing pole with feathers instead of a lure.) She is not susceptible to Feliway (our second cat is, but he's already pretty mellow).

Both our cats are indoor cats and this is not negotiable - we live in an apartment and the area we live in is not a great area for cats to be outside. Also, we like the native bird species.

She had a check up at the vet's office a few days more than four months ago and other than being overweight, she was doing fine.

I want to make it clear that I don't regard pets as disposable items in any way. But I don't know how to live with a pet that has attacked a child.

Initial thoughts:
Take her to the vet for a workup to see if there's something causing her pain that could be addressed, or perhaps something in the cat anti-depressant/anti-anxiety genre might help.

We have already decided to exclude her from the bedroom for the time being - we can keep an eye on her and the baby in other locations and keep them separate but the bedroom is not a place where we can be constantly alert.

I'm scared that if this doesn't work out and I can't figure out something, I'll have to try to rehome an older, not so cuddly cat. We love her dearly but I don't know how to be sure that she won't hurt the kid.

I'm seeking advice on how to handle this - is this aggression a dealbreaker and we should focus our energy on finding her a happy home with someone who won't subject her to babies or other pets or are there things we should do to try to keep the aggression from happening again?
posted by anonymous to Pets & Animals (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, definitely take her to the vet ASAP. Just because she was healthy four months ago doesn't mean she is healthy now. If the vet rules out medical causes, could you find a cat behaviorist in your area?

I personally would never consider a single bout of aggression to be a dealbreaker, but I am a childless animal freak so YMMV. It must be really scary to know that your son could have been harmed.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 3:04 AM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Animal freak with kids here. This is 100% get the advice of a cat behavioralist territory. We had a cat who did a similar thing years ago except she swatted at the baby once. We separated them as much as possible and then had to spritz the cat in the face with water whenever she got near the baby. That worked, she learned to keep her distance and as the baby grew up she learned to play nicely with her.

So in my case all hope wasn't lost but again, this could have been worse and you need someone who knows cats to help you. Your vet may be helpful but don't be surprised if they suggest rehoming the cat, which you may not have to do.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:33 AM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have seen mother cats do this kind of thing to their own kittens, so unless this activity looks a lot more aggressive than what you've described (which sounds to me like what mother cats do to their own kittens when the kittens are being annoying) what happened was a simple case of evolutionary behavior.

You can teach the cat not to do that. Water bottle or canned air work well to deter cats from any behavior you don't want them to repeat. Make sure your cat can get away - something with some height is never bad to have for cats - and make sure you are giving her some attention that is not inclusive of the baby (not because the cat is jealous, but because the baby can do things, like make insanity inducing noises, that are stressful to the cat . . and to you :) ) -- a little snuggle time with the kitty would probably make you feel good, too, proven therapeutic and all that. Get a behaviorist if you think you should.
posted by Medieval Maven at 4:48 AM on June 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

my friends had the same problem.

The solution: put out cat food on baby clothes (even dirty ones). The cat will begin to associate the smell of the baby with food.

This worked quickly and really well.
posted by jb at 5:54 AM on June 13, 2016 [16 favorites]

Great advice above. I would also consider getting Soft Paws to mitigate any swatting that might occur, and try to assess the types of biting your cat does. Our cat will nip at us occasionally if we annoy him or he gets overstimulated, but he has never ever broken the skin -- it's an annoying habit, but not something we consider dangerous. He can definitely do more damage with his claws, which is why I suggest the Soft Paws. Obviously all cats are different and if you know him to be a really dangerous biter, you should act accordingly. But if we're talking about a minor annoyed "nip" type of bite, I probably wouldn't overreact -- to me, this is just sort of part and parcel of living with a cat and something your kid will get used to growing up. But, in fairness, I don't have a child so maybe I would feel differently in that case! Still, I would try to assess the real risk here -- if your child really is in danger of being mauled and seriously injured (and I know there are cats, especially strays, who can behave this way), then of course take action to protect him! If we're talking an "I'm mildly annoyed!" bite that does not break the skin, I would not freak out.
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:33 AM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Your baby comes first. It is absolutely okay to consider this a deal breaker and re-home the cat. This is now the baby's home and if something in the home isn't working for baby, that something should go. You've not been able to convince this cat to accept the other cat, and it isn't even close to as much of a territorially threat as a child. I wouldn't even give it a second thought.
posted by myselfasme at 6:37 AM on June 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

Previously. Cats react to the cries of prey instinctually, and guess what that creaking/shrieking noise sounds like? It's not annoyance like they're human, it's triggering like they're an instinct-driven mammal.

You get to make your own decisions about what to do, but just don't decide it's only this cat, get rid of it, and then get another one. Either have a cat and deal with this or don't. If you want to have a pet and children, it's going to be on you to intervene sometimes to protect one from the other.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:34 AM on June 13, 2016 [13 favorites]

I had a cat with some different anxiety issues and the vet gave me a "antidepressent" type medication called Chlomapramine. It was compounded into a lotion that I would rub into his ears.... much easier that trying to get a pill in a cat! An option to ask your vet about!
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 7:55 AM on June 13, 2016

An animal behaviorist may be able to help. I experienced this with my dog, who was a very senior dog with some (treated) health issues. He was not aggressive to the baby, but would bark and get very agitated when the baby cried, and as a result, we did not ever trust him to be near the baby. I had to work very, very had to keep the dog away from our baby at all times. It requires constant vigilance and frankly, I do not envy the position you're in. One of the tips a dog trainer told me is that a baby's cry can change on a daily basis, and animals are able to sense these changes much more easily than humans. So even when our dog had learned to get used to the baby's cry one day, the very next day he would have to learn to adapt to the new, slightly changed cry.
We worked to use treats to help calm the dog when he was near the baby. So if he glanced at the baby, we would soothe him and give him a lick of peanut butter. If he got nearer the baby and stayed calm, he would get another lick. We did this repeatedly and it did result in a pet that could be near the baby without getting agitated, but we still never left them alone together and never left baby on the floor or in a place where the dog could get to him. We were living in a very small place at the time and it was difficult to keep them apart. If we had a larger home it would have been easier or not even a problem.
My best advice to you is to do what is right for you and the baby. I can sense some real stress level in your question and I just want you to know that your own self-care is important here too. Your cat is a special part of your family, but the cat is not a person. If I were in your position, I would reach out to friends to ask if there is anyone available to rehome the cat for a period of time. It's a possibility you may have to consider. You may not need to rehome the cat, but if you do decide you need to, at least you've started to try to find a good place. You're caring for a baby and you're experiencing a massive biological and hormonal shift and sleep deprivation. You need support for yourself and your baby, and it's really okay if you ultimately decide the people's needs come first.
posted by areaperson at 9:18 AM on June 13, 2016

I'd re-home the cat asap. We had a cat which hated my five year old daughter. I saw it hunt her while she was climbing a tree, and bite her deeply in the arm. We re-homed it (if I'd caught it at the time it wouldn't have been so lucky). Perhaps your cat is less aggressive, of course?
posted by anadem at 9:33 AM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

She was probably just trying to nip the baby to discipline her as a mother cat would discipline a kitten.

I would not assume that she's actually aggressive toward the baby (as opposed to just trying to "help" you parent) or worry about rehoming unless she scratches or bites hard enough to break skin.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:35 PM on June 13, 2016

as opposed to just trying to "help" you parent

There is no evidence for this in the question, and a lot of evidence for aggression, territoriality, and a lack of response to attempts to modify behaviour. Cats are fast - faster than you are - and have claws and teeth, while babies are soft and vulnerable. You can't be vigilant every second. Baby > cat.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:46 PM on June 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I would re-home this cat. Also, it seems like you have already dealt with this, but it is 100% unsafe to have a cat next to a co-sleeping infant, aggressive or no -- so definitely don't do that again.

I'm sorry, this is not a fun situation.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 3:31 PM on June 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

It sounds like this cat wants to be an only-cat in a home where she is the main focus of love/affection. Which is not to say that she cannot be convinced over time to tolerate being one of two cats in a household with kids who are more important than her, but that she might end up tolerating her life rather than enjoying it like she used to.

It sounds like the baby is adding insult to injury, since you already added an unwelcome cat to the home before the baby came, which she still doesn't really accept either.

The cat might have attacked the baby because the baby was making injured-prey noises, or because it generally dislikes the baby and was disturbed by the noise (cats yowl in aggression too), or she could just be a generally cantankerous cat in a perpetual bad mood because her life isn't as nice as it used to be (in her estimation) so she's in a constant state of low-level anxiety.

If it were me i'd take her to the vet to be sure it's nothing medical, and then probably try a few things (spraying with water when near the baby seems sensible as an emergency measure - you mention moving one or other when the non-mobile baby is kicking the cat, why on EARTH is the cat not moving itself in response to being kicked!? that seems abnormal to me and Not Good) and then if they failed i'd rehome. I think you can keep this cat, or this cat can be a happy cat, but maybe not both.
posted by intergalacticvelvet at 2:36 AM on June 14, 2016

For me, that act of aggression (as you put it) would be a dealbreaker. I wouldn't risk her taking a couple of seconds to leap onto the baby when your back is briefly turned.

I say this as someone who had a cat which would lurk outside the bathroom door, waiting for my seven year old to approach the doorway after her shower, when the cat would leap on her, latch all four claws onto her leg and bite her. The cat came into the household after my kids so it wasn't a usurped territory/jealousy thing. It was just a vicious arsehole of an animal. The safety of my kids was paramount, so the cat was removed from our home.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 6:04 AM on June 14, 2016

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