Cats often get the short end of the stick in urban legends and myths. Over the course of human history we have associated cats with Satan himself, witches, plagues, and more. Wherever something goes unexplained, another cat myth shows up.
Version #1: Cats smell the milk on a baby’s breath and want to get a taste of it. When the baby is placed in the crib, the cat jumps in and begins suckling on the baby’s lips. During this suckling, the cat steals the baby’s breath causing it to suffocate and die.
Version #2: Cats are very jealous of the attention their owners give to the newborn baby. This jealousy entices cats to commit murder. They commit the murder by climbing into the crib with a sleeping baby and stealing it’s breath so that it suffocates and dies.
Print sightings of this legend go back as far as 1607. The origin that is most sited for this legend comes from a story from 1791. The story holds that a jury found a cat guilty of killing a Plymouth infant based on the findings of a coroner.
Another popular story was published in 1929 in the Nebraska State Journal. Supposedly a doctor had caught a cat in the act of stealing a baby’s breath. The doctor was quoted as seeing:
“the family pet in the very act of sucking a child’s breath, laying on the baby’s breast, a paw on either side of the babe’s mouth, the cat’s lips pressing those of the child and the infant’s face as pale as that of a corpse, it’s lips with the blueness of death.”
There are no confirmed cases of a cat ever stealing anyone’s breath. Rarely there have been cases where a cat was suspected to have smothered an infant (it is probably worthwhile to note that babies are much more frequently smothered by caregivers who roll over on them while sleeping next to them). In 2000 one mother did suspect her cat had smothered her 6-month-old child, but it was revealed in autopsy that the baby had died from S.I.D.S.
When a child dies it can be a pain too difficult for family members to bear. It is believed that this legend about cat’s sucking the breath out of babies came about because people did not yet know about S.I.D.S. Families wanted answers and cats were convenient targets. Since cats love to cuddle up to things that are warm, it would not have been uncommon to see the cat cuddled up next to an infant. There were already many legends about cats acting as agents of the devil and causing plagues and the such. The idea that cats were killing babies gave grieving families a place to put the blame.
Most cats are frightened of a newborn baby when it first arrives home and they steer clear of it. Some cats will eventually warm up to the child – and even like the child. Cats and children can form a special little bond. Some mothers even report that the cat is somewhat of a nuance because it will wake the child and the child will want to play with the kitty rather than sleep.
No matter how much the cat and child love one another, cats and other animals should always be supervised around babies. Infants may not be able to move their heads or other body parts to adjust themselves when a cat has made them uncomfortable. Children nearing the toddler phase may pull the cat’s ears, tail, or whiskers provoking the cat. While their intentions are not malicious, cats don’t always realize how delicate babies are compared to the adults they are used to playing with and sleeping on. As a general rule of thumb it is always a good idea to keep the cat out of the nursery at night. Pediatricians don’t recommend that anything – including pillows, toys, or cats- be placed in the crib with a sleeping baby.