The relationship between cats and children can be a very happy experience and a good influence that leads to a lifelong love of pets. Conversely, the relationship can be fraught with complications. Children often fail to read signals from the cat asking for space, and the result can be scratches and bites, with both the cat and child upset and frightened. It’s not only clumsy toddlers or overly friendly 4-year-olds who can have poor interactions with cats; it happens with children of all ages, into the teen years. The importance of how the relationship develops is crucial for the safety and emotional well-being of both the child and the cat.
To help your child and cat have good reactions to each other, it’s important to put boundaries in place. Here are some guidelines that help promote positive experiences for your family members, both human and feline.
Help your child learn to recognise when your cat is relaxed and when she is not. A cat that enjoys being petted will rub against your child’s hands or clothing or lean toward him. She may also hold her tail high and twitch the end, and she may purr. Signs that petting should stop include a swishing tail, a tail fluffed out, or a tail lowered to the ground or tucked underneath the body. An anxious cat may also move her ears back, growl or extend her claws.
Even well-meaning children can accidentally frighten a cat by pulling her tail, grabbing her paws or attempting to restrain her. You will need to be present for every interaction your child has with your cat. If he acts in a manner that may frighten the cat, make sure he understands this isn’t acceptable — and be sure to praise proper treatment of the cat.
Show your child how to use an open hand and a soft, gentle stroke when he pets the cat. Pay special attention to babies and toddlers, who often poke and pat a cat or grab and hold her fur and skin. If needed, hold your baby or toddler’s hand to be sure he keeps an open palm while petting. Teach your child to pet the cat only on her back, shoulder, neck and top of the head; most cats will tolerate petting on those areas better than on the face, paws, tail or belly.
When children reach for, and attempt to pick up or hold a cat, they often meet with fearful reactions. Even cats that are comfortable being held by adults may not have the same reaction when being picked up by a child. Children are less able to keep a steady hold on a cat, as they have less strength and move around more and faster than adults, with less predictable movements. Children may attempt to grab and hold on to a fearful or resistant cat as well as overlook signals that a restrained cat wants to be put down. Because cats may perceive that their physical safety is in danger, they may struggle, scratch or even bite when being picked up or held by children.
To help your cat relax while still allowing close physical contact, there are strategies for holding cats that can lower potential stress. For younger children, teach them to sit on the floor or couch and invite the cat onto their lap. It’s important they don’t force, but rather tempt the cat there using a toy or treats and continue to reward the animal while she’s on the child’s lap with petting, toys, treats or simply warm body contact. If the cat tries to move away, the child must be taught to always let the cat leave when she wants. For older children who are physically capable and calm enough to hold a cat, teach the child to lift the cat’s weight evenly with one hand under the chest and the other supporting the rear legs and to gently hold the cat against the torso for added balance and security. It’s important the child learns to heed signs of the cat wanting to get down, such as the cat scanning the floor for a place to jump, ears moving backward or tail twitching. The child should then lower the cat to the floor or find an elevated structure with stable footing nearby, like a cat tree, where the cat can walk off without needing to jump down.
Cats are sensitive to movement and noise. Normal children’s play, such as shouting, jumping and running, may upset and frighten your cat, even when your child is not playing with her. That type of play should be done outside or in a playroom where the cat is not allowed. When your child does play with your cat, teach him not to use his hands as a toy. Play with hands teaches a cat that it’s alright to use claws and teeth on hands. That can cause problems, including escalated predatory play that can frighten or inadvertently hurt a child. Teach your child to focus play on a toy rather than on his hands.
When your cat is hiding underneath something or up on something high, your child should never try to pull her out or try to squeeze in next to her. Your cat hides because she wants to be alone; cornering her or pulling her out can cause her to scratch or bite. Teach your child to allow the cat to come out on her own or to entice her out gently, like tempting her with a catnip toy or a row of treats.
Your cat should have ample places in your home to have private time, such as cat trees, high shelving and hiding spaces. Teach your child to leave the cat alone when she is in one of these private areas. It is also a good idea to have a room for your cat that is off-limits to your child; you can put her there when she needs a break or when you are unable to supervise her interactions with your child. Your cat’s bed and food should be placed away from the busy communal areas of your home, such as the living room or the hallway. If you have very young children who don’t yet understand how important it is for your cat to rest, you could install a baby gate to create a ‘child-free’ space and prevent children wandering in.
It’s a good idea to keep your cat’s litterbox somewhere out of the way. This provides a safe space for your cat to use the tray, preventing accidents, as well as stopping children from messing with the contents of the tray, which could make them ill.
Bringing a new feline friend home isn’t just a chance to grow your family, it’s an opportunity to teach your child empathy, compassion, and responsibility.