Cats smother babies: True/False?

Every newborn child brings with it a cascade of advice from all and sundry. Much of it at least sounds like common sense, but eventually out of left field comes the dire warning that any cats must be kept at bay, because they steal the breath of babies, and smother them to death. Now we all know that cats are very self centred but this, this is frank villainy. Unfortunately, cat lovers, it is true.

There probably isn’t any infanticidal instinct on the part of the cat. Poor old Tiddles likely just wants somewhere warm and soft to nap. The whys and wherefores aren’t really crucial because all you need to prove this one is a black swan.

What, I hear you cry, do swans have to do with it? Black swans are philosophical shorthand that scientists like to bandy about to impress everyone with their deep and obscure knowledge. They evoke the impossibility of proving a negative — that there are no black swans — because no matter how many white swans you find there could always be a black one over the next hill. On the other hand it is easy to prove a positive — that there are black swans — all you need is one black swan.

It’s the same with these smothering cats and there are at least three case reports in the medical literature where cats have smothered babies, with debilitating and fatal consequences. That’s not many, I grant you, but still two more black swans than we need to make the case.

It may be more common than the reports suggest because if if the cat takes off before it is discovered then any problems are likely to be put down to other, more familiar causes.

Cats do smother babies, though it’s probable that the number of sleeping babies asphyxiated by cats is far outweighed by the number of cats we have asphyxiated in experiments designed to understand cot death. Best not let the cats hear about that one — just in case they decide to even up the score.

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