Living with a cat can be beneficial to children. Cats can enhance children’s self-esteem, teach them responsibility and help them to learn empathy. However, children and cats may not always automatically have a wonderful relationship. Parents must be willing to teach the cat and the child acceptable limits of behaviour in order to make their interactions pleasant and safe.
Selecting a Cat
What age is best? If you are considering adding a cat to your family, you may think you should get a kitten so your child and the kitten can grow up together. If you have a young child and are thinking of adopting a kitten (less than one year old), there are a few things you need to consider:
- Time and energy
Kittens require a lot of time, patience and supervision. If you have a young child who already requires a lot of care and time, you should ask yourself if you will have enough time to care for a kitten as well.
Kittens, because they’re babies, are fragile creatures. A kitten many become frightened or even injured by a well-meaning, curious child who wants to constantly pick her up, hug her or explore her body by pulling on her tail or ears.
- Rough play
Kittens have sharp teeth and claws with which they may inadvertently injure a small child. Kittens also tend to climb up on small children and accidentally scratch. All interactions between your child and kitten will need to be closely supervised in order to minimize the chances of either being injured.
- Advantages of adopting an adult cat
Adult cats require less time and attention once they have adjusted to your family and household routine. You can better gauge how hardy and tolerant an adult cat will be of a child’s enthusiasm.
As a general rule, if your child is under six years old, it’s best to adopt a cat that is over two years old. Although kittens can be a lot of fun and it is exciting and rewarding to help them grow into wonderful companions, they do require significantly more time to supervise than an adult cat.
Starting Off Right
Begin by setting up both the cat and the child for success. Remember, small children should never be left alone with a cat or kitten without adult supervision.
Because kittens often squirm and wiggle they can easily fall out of a young child’s arms and become injured. If held too tightly or forcibly restrained, the kitten may respond by scratching or biting. It is safest for everyone if your child is sitting down whenever he wants to hold the kitten.For adult cats, have young children sit in your lap and let the cat approach both of you. Older children should sit quietly on the floor or in a chair. This way you can control your child and not allow him to get “carried away” with pats that are too rough. You are also there to teach your cat to treat your child gently. Some cats do not want to be held, but will sit next to you and your child if offered treats or petting. Keep in mind that the cat should always be allowed to leave when it feels like it.Hold out one finger and allow the cat to sniff it. If she tries to rub your finger, that is a great sign! If she backs away or hisses, she is not comfortable. Never force a cat into a situation she isn’t comfortable with – this could spell disaster for the cat and the human.Scratch interested kitties all over the head, neck and chin, and then along her back. If she remains relaxed and interested, gently place one hand under her belly and slowly pick up her front feet off the floor.If she remains relaxed, gently continue to pick her up as your other hand supports her back legs. Hold her securely against your body as you support her feet, and continue scratching her head. Place the cat in your child’s lap and encourage him to gently scratch the cat’s head and back.
- Petting and Giving Affection
Children often want to hug cats or grasp them too firmly. Your cat may view this as a threatening gesture, rather than an affectionate one, and may react with scratching or biting. You should teach your child to let the cat approach on his own terms and pet lightly. You should also teach your child to avoid staring at or looking directly into your cat’s eyes.
- Giving Treats
When children offer a treat from fingers held together as a pincher the cat may accidentally bite fingers instead of only taking the treat. Have your child place the treat in an open palm, rather than holding it in his fingers. You may want to place a hand underneath your child’s hand to help guide him.
- Supervising Play
Cats interpret quick and jerky hand movements as an invitation to play. You should teach your child to offer the cat or kitten a toy on a string in order to maximize the distance between the child’s hands and the toy. Encouraging a cat to play with hands and fingers may result in scratches or bites.
- Be Patient
Your cat may take some time to feel comfortable with your child’s actions and sounds and will approach when she feels ready. Your cat must also learn which behaviours on her part are appropriate and which are not.Remember, punishing your cat for inappropriate behaviour will not help. If she learns that being around a child always results in punishment, she may become defensive in their presence.
More Tips for Meeting Cats
- If the cat becomes uncomfortable or demonstrates “unhappy” body language (i.e. flattened ears, wide eyes, wagging tail, etc.), gently but quickly set her down or allow her to leave on her own.
- Most cats do not like being held for long periods of time, so do not expect her to tolerate it.
- Many cats do not like to have their bellies rubbed, so encourage children to avoid this.
- Do not allow children to grab, squeeze or carry cats like footballs. Cats can become injured or scared, which is dangerous for everyone involved.