Children and Cats – Making it Work

Girl with Adopted CatSupervise interaction. Most children are excited about a new pet joining the family. However, even with the best of intentions, a child can accidentally frighten or even hurt a cat, especially a kitten, by pulling its tail, trying to hug too tightly or chasing it. To help your child learn how to safely and kindly interact with your new cat, you need to supervise ALL interactions between your child and the cat until you are sure your child can safely interact with the cat. If your child does not know how to interact with the cat in a safe, positive manner, you need to teach your child and model for them. As with all positive behavior teachings, be sure to praise proper treatment of the cat. Very young children, due to their beginning maturity level, may not be able to interact safely with a cat and should be supervised during all interactions.

Teach your child the right way to pet the cat. Again, your positive modeling is so important. Show your child that we use an open hand and a soft, gentle stroke that goes with the fur when we pet a cat. Grabbing, poking and rubbing the fur the wrong way can create stress for the cat and provoke a scratch. You may find it helpful to hold your baby or toddler’s hand to be sure he keeps an open palm while petting. Remember, all cats are different in where they like to be petted. It is helpful to observe your cat as you pet her to see what she likes and dislikes. Most cats like to be softly petted on the top of the head, neck and shoulder.

Pay attention to your cat’s body language. Help your child learn to recognize when your cat is relaxed and when he is not. A cat who is enjoying being petted will rub against your child’s hands or clothing or lean in toward her. The cat may also hold his tail high and purr. Signs that petting should stop include a swishing tail, a tail that’s fluffed out, or a tail that’s lowered to the ground or tucked underneath the cat. An anxious cat may also move his ears back, growl or extend his claws.

Keep indoor play calm and gentle. Cats are sensitive to movement and noise. Normal play, such as shouting, jumping and running may upset and frighten your cat, even when your child is not playing with her. This type of play should be done outside or in another play area 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 OK to use claws and teeth on hands, which can lead to predatory play that can frighten or hurt a child. Teach your child to focus play on a toy rather than on his hands.

Allow your cat to hide. 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 with non-stressful tactics, like luring her with a string toy or a row of treats. However, if your cat does not want to come out, teach your child to respect her space.

Give your cat some alone time. Your cat should have ample areas in your home to have private time, such as cat trees, high shelving and hiding spaces. A cardboard box with both ends open and a fluffy towel inside can make a cozy hiding area. 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.