Cat-lover becomes cat-cautious after arrival of daughter

THE cats arrived first. Smudge, named by Cork Cat Action Trust for the black splotch on his nose, and his sister, ZiZi, whom we named after a cat in a Lebanese movie my husband had seen. They were three-month-old kittens, brazen and vulnerable, and we worried about them like they were children.

Cat-lover becomes cat-cautious after arrival of daughter

If we let them out, would they run away/get lost/be clobbered by a car/get into cat fights/have their eyes snatched out by magpies?

They slept in the spare bedroom and we took them for walks on his-and-her leads (red and blue) along our terrace on Cork City’s northside. (Yes, the neighbours laughed).

The baby arrived second. The weary faces of friends, who were on the ‘been there, done that’ side of parenthood, broke into smiles, chuckling like they knew something we didn’t.

They said “oh, now your lives are going to change. A child. You won’t know what hit you.”

“Oh, but we’ve got cats,” we said, with the confidence of two people who knew they were halfway prepared for parenthood. The seasoned mums and dads laughed. But what floored us were the follow-up questions. “Will you keep the cats?” one woman asked. “Keep the cats? Keep the cats?” my inner, feline-besotted voice shrieked. “Why wouldn’t we keep the cats?” I asked calmly.

Reasons not to were not in short supply. What if one of them sat on the sleeping child’s face? Or scratched her? A toddler could mistakenly use the cats’ litter tray as a sandbox in which to play. The one that worried me most was ‘what if she’s allergic’?

I wish I’d spoken with Ann Molony, of Cork Cat Action Trust, who said a US study found that children growing up with dogs and cats had significantly reduced risk of developing common allergies — some by 50% or more. She said if the cat is in situ with the family when the child arrives, there are minimal adjustment problems. “Unless the cat gets jealous, but a dog will get jealous quicker than a cat — a cat will just flick its tail and walk off.”

It took our daughter, Julia, beloved beyond all felines and now three years old, to prove to us that cats and under-fives can live under the same roof without fur or hair flying. Julia’s developmental milestones have occurred in the presence of cats, with some cat alarm. Like the day Smudge had to improvise a getaway, when Julia suddenly staggered onto her two feet and took her first steps, tottering unsteadily, but determinedly, towards him. Or the day she had a mega-tantrum and ZiZi stared, not at her, but at me. Her triangular-shaped cat face asking urgently and eloquently: ‘What are YOU going to do about THIS?’

Julia’s first words were ‘Hey ZiZi’. Her party piece, even when she had hardly any words, was to mimic the cats’ two different voices — ZiZi’s high-pitched ‘Miaowww’ and Smudge’s hoarse ‘Ack’.

Some of Julia’s favourite storybook characters are cats — like Mog, a fat grey cat who’s forgetful, who hurts her paw and has to go to the vet, and Mog, a witch’s black cat who keeps company with a spider and an owl, and who turns four witches into mice.

Julia accepts the two different Mogs with equanimity, a sign, we think, of a flexible mind.

Maggie Dwyer, of Community Cats Network, says people believe an animal will make children responsible. “Animals don’t make children responsible. Parents do,” she says.

While we hadn’t grasped, pre-baby, that two cats would not prepare us for child-rearing, we instinctively knew it was up to us to foster a good child-feline connection.

When Julia was 18 months old, Smudge twined himself around her legs in the seductive way of a cat wanting to be fed. Julia looked up at us in alarm, so we exclaimed: “Oh, he just gave you a cat hug! He loves you!” And she smiled from ear to ear.

Just as we’d say ‘hot!’ if we see her making for the fireplace, we say ‘gently’ when we see her heading for the cats. She is learning to communicate with this other species — how to use her hand in a non-threatening way to invite a cat to come to her. She has never been scrawled, but she knows a cat’s twitching tail is the prelude to a spit or scratch. And she knows that a cat’s slowly blinking eyes are the same as a hug.

She’s on good terms with both cats, but she has bonded most with Smudge. He lets her rub him, doesn’t run away when she demands if he likes her necklace, often turns up for her bedtime stories (maybe because they’re vastly populated by cats) and sleeps outside her bedroom door.

Integrating a child into a home with cats is a slow process. With a dog, it’s all hugs and slobbery kisses in a matter of minutes. Cats and children take time, where they learn to move in each other’s physical orbits, gradually increasing their interaction. Some cats are so placid they’ll let children play all sorts of make-believe games with them. Neither Smudge nor ZiZi will ever let Julia dress them up in doll clothes or wheel them out in the garden in a pram.

But her dearest wish is that Smudge will some day lie sleeping in her lap. I have no doubt he will.

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