Cats can be wonderful companions for children. They’re quiet, gentle, smart and playful. There are some guidelines though that should be followed to help a strong and trusting bond develop. Here are some general tips:
Hands off zones
Your cat needs areas in the home where she can go when she wants to be undisturbed. Cats live in a vertical world and not just a horizontal one so create elevated areas for your cat that are out of reach of children and also the family dog. A multi-perched cat tree is a great option. You can even put a cat bed on a shelf in a bookcase or on top of another piece of furniture. Even if children can physically reach the area they should be taught that when kitty is there it means she wants to be alone.
The hands off zones also apply to the litter box, the cat’s food bowl and wherever she may settle down for a nap (even if it’s on the bed). When kitty is eating, sleeping or using the litter box she needs to know she can trust the safety of her surroundings.
The velvet touch
Cats are soft and we love to pet them and touch them. Children, especially toddlers, need to be taught the correct petting technique. Petting should be done with an open hand and always in the direction the fur grows. Each cat is an individual and will have particular petting preferences so pay attention to what your cat likes so you can educate your child. For example, your cat may enjoy long strokes down the back but doesn’t like it when you touch her tail. Maybe your cat enjoys being scratched on the back of the neck but not along her flanks. This information can make a big difference in whether physical interaction is pleasurable or uncomfortable.
The technique I always recommend to my clients is to get a soft cat toy (preferably one that is the same color as the family cat) and teach children how and where to pet using the toy. This way, the family cat stays safe during the learning process.
When it comes to playtime, kids and cats are a natural combination. To keep things safe and avoid any miscommunication on the part of the cat though, you want to keep kitty’s claws and teeth away from tender flesh. Instead of having children hold little fuzzy mice or other small toys, get fishing pole-type toys instead. This puts a safe distance between the cat’s teeth/claws and someone’s fingers. Show children how to slowly move the toy away from or across the cat’s visual field – and never at the cat. This is important because you don’t want kitty getting poked in the eye accidentally but also, movements across or away from the visual field trigger the prey-drive and stimulate the cat to play. Movements toward the cat are confusing. No mouse would march right up to the cat and offer itself up as lunch.
Keep fishing pole toys put away in-between playtime so kitty doesn’t chew on any strings or get tangled up in them.
Many times, parents will tell me they’ve agreed to get a cat for the children but that the kids must assume total responsibility for the pet. While I think everyone in the family needs to be responsible for the health and happiness of the cat, it’s not fair for a kitty to suffer because a child didn’t pay attention to the fact that the water bowl was empty or that it was time to feed dinner. Parents should assume the responsibility of making sure the cat’s needs are met. In terms of litter box duties, this is where I feel it’s very important for you, as a parent, to be in charge. What kitty does or doesn’t do in the litter box can be valuable information in terms of monitoring her health. A child may not pay attention to the fact that the cat has eliminated a very hard stool or has had diarrhea, or maybe the size of the clumped litter saturated with urine is much larger than normal. These are all potential red flags that something may need veterinary attention.
Be a role model
How you interact with the family cat is the best way to teach your children. When they see you showing kindness, responsibility, affection and enjoyment, they will follow you. How you treat animals will set the tone for how your children respect and care for not only the current pets in your home, but the pets in their future.