Weird cat behavior, human baby edition
August 27, 2018 12:02 PM   Subscribe

Little Circle is six weeks old. Little Miss has exhibited odd behavior when Little Circle cries on two separate occasions. The behavior seems protective, but it's new to us and we're curious if others have had the experience. What did you do, and did it stop eventually?

Little Miss has never gone after Little Circle aggressively. She's batted her feet once while breastfeeding, but in a playful manner. She will sit near us and watch the baby but has never shown much interest except the occasional whiff of her head. Both incidents have been in Little Circle's room when we are changing her diaper and she's crying loudly. Little Miss will come up behind us, grab our legs, scratch and/or nip. This has happened twice now. Once with Mr. Circle yesterday and once today with me. It's not quite aggressive - Little Miss doesn't hiss or bite and doesn't come back after we shoo her away. In general, she's a gentle and calm cat unless her belly is touched, she's at the vet, or a well-meaning but ignorant visitor antagonizes her when playing.

If it's relevant, we do not let Little Miss be around the baby unsupervised. Little Circle sleeps in her crib or, occasionally in a Rock n Play next to our bed. We do not co-sleep with the baby. Little Miss sleeps with us at night.

I've had cats for years, but never with a baby. I've never hears of or seen this protective behavior until now. My questions are:

1. I'm flabbergasted that a cat would care about a human baby enough to protect it; is this really a thing?
2. If you've experienced this, how did you soothe your cat in the moment to reassure them that you're taking care of baby?
3. Why is she exhibiting this behavior now, six weeks in? Perhaps it's the pitch of the cry that's changed and it's distressing?

The irony of my cat not only sitting in silent judgment of my parenting skills, but actively doing something about it is not lost on me.
posted by onecircleaday to Pets & Animals (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It may well have taken six weeks for Little Miss to figure out that this is a permanent addition to the household, not a visitor, and that the two of you are supposed to be managing the baby's care.

Since they happened while changing diapers, it's possible that Little Miss is trying to tell you to drag the baby to the litter box.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:11 PM on August 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

When our daughter was a baby, our cats always seemed quite concerned when the baby cried, though not necessarily with any scratching or nipping. They did indeed get over it as time went on and eventually treated her with benign disinterest as cats will do.
posted by briank at 12:18 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think this is fairly common. I always thought it was because the sound is hurting the cat's ears, rather than the cat trying to be protective.
posted by pinochiette at 12:18 PM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

It's a form of overstimulation. They're registering a distress call, and they're weird mammals, and they act out. It's pretty common. You'll have to work with your cat's personality to figure out how to intervene, but you may want to divert with a pounceable toy or catnip pouch and then them tackle that and get their yayas out.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:20 PM on August 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Sometimes cats will run up and lightly chomp another cat to get their attention when the whole group of them needs to get the heck outta wherever they are - because of a dog or a noise or whatever. I wonder if this is because you're resolutely not moving away from the horrible shrieking sound?
posted by Mizu at 12:21 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Research conducted with deer mothers has shown that the deer will rush to the aid of infants of various species. The researchers said it was possible there's a universality to the quality of all infant distress calls that means mothers might not differentiate between species in that instinctive moment.

Anecdotally: our dog lived with a family that had small children before we adopted him, and he gets distressed at babies' or children's cries. He definitely exhibits "You need to help!" behaviour at these times.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:24 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

We had cats when our babies were born and their reactions ranged from

2. Yo, tall thing. Noise thing is making the noise again. Do the stop noise thing that you do to make the noise thing stop making noise.
3. Meh

#2 might involve nipping, batting at feet, or other "get the tall thing's attention" tactics. After a while they all migrated to "meh".

I don't know what was going on in their heads, because cats are weird and they probably don't know, but a protective instinct is not out of the question.

Your cat is adorable, btw.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 12:27 PM on August 27, 2018 [9 favorites]

Kitty used to admonish us with very pointed meows whenever our infant son would cry. Yep, my cat would “mom shame” me.

Good times.
posted by jbenben at 12:28 PM on August 27, 2018 [10 favorites]

I think it's the sound too. One of my cats howls like a banshee when put those SoftClaws covers on her feet, which leads one of my other cats - a normally docile sweetheart - to come running over and smack her in the face. It's a pretty clear "Shut UP" reaction.
posted by something something at 12:32 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Your cat already knows your hearing is terrible from all the things it hears that you're oblivious to, and it's just making sure you are aware there's a problem.
posted by jamjam at 12:33 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

We had two cats for about four years before our twin (human) girls arrived. The cats started behaving erratically and we ultimately found them a new home. They never got over the new, far more important additions to the household.
posted by look busy at 12:45 PM on August 27, 2018

My cats do this. They're normally playfully aggressive, though. It seems to happen more when I haven't been giving them a lot of attention. I've always interpreted it as - "stop playing with that noisy human and come play with me instead."
posted by galvanized unicorn at 12:53 PM on August 27, 2018

Our cats were always protective of our babies.

And our male dog is very interested in babies of any species. When we had bottle-fed goats in the house this spring, he spent a lot of time hovering over them when they cried & licking their bodies.
posted by belladonna at 12:56 PM on August 27, 2018

Our (mild-mannered, docile) cat used to entangle herself in our legs and mew pitifully whenever the baby cried, or stand at the entrance to whichever room he was crying in and mew/stare at him. Two years later, she goes right up to him when he cries and will rub her head on his legs or attempt to climb into his lap when he cries. I think she's responding to a distress call - but not all cats seem to be this way.
posted by Everydayville at 1:06 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

My old cat Roxanne would do this with my little brother. Every time he cried she was upset and got protective; once when my dad was tickling him and he was scream-laughing she ran over and tried to drag him away by the nape of his neck.
posted by saladin at 1:19 PM on August 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Human infant cries are very similar in pitch to some cat vocalizations. This is one reason humans find it hard to ignore a demanding cat - we've evolved specifically to respond to those sounds.

Here you've just got the same situation happening in reverse; Little Miss recognizes the baby's cries as something similar to the sound of a distressed cat or kitten and she wants you to deal with the situation, either out of empathy for the kid or just because it's not fun for her to hear those cries just like it's not fun for a human to listen to a cat continuously meowing.

I'd guess the reason she's started doing this six weeks in is either because of a change in pitch, like you said, or possibly because it just took her a while to figure out that the new small human is the source of the sounds.
posted by waffleriot at 1:30 PM on August 27, 2018

Anecdata, but my dearly departed Siamese cat, Nikki, used to bite *me* when I was upset. I never quite figured out what that was about, but I always saw it as a reaction to perceived distress. It was never a hard or really aggressive bite, but definitely an unmistakable signal that she knew something was wrong. Might be something like that going on here.
posted by aecorwin at 12:45 PM on August 28, 2018

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