By Dr. Becker
Kids and dogs seem to be natural-born friends, don’t they? Noisy, playful, impulsive, and often fearless kindred spirits.
Cats and kids, well, that can be a different story. Feline behavior can be difficult for adults to understand, so we shouldn’t be surprised that children often need considerable guidance in how to live harmoniously with the family cat.
The thing about our kitty friends is they need to be cared for on their own terms. Children who learn how to do this will enjoy enduring relationships with one of nature’s most magnificent, intriguing creatures.
How to Help Your Child Be a Loving Cat Guardian
- Supervise every kid-kitty interaction. Until your child is an old pro at knowing when and how to handle your cat, you should be present whenever the two of them are together. Kids tend to act impulsively or out of frustration, and that’s when kitty could be subject to rough handling.
By directly observing your child as he interacts with your cat, you can give praise when he treats kitty gently and with respect, and redirect his behavior as necessary.
- Learn feline body language. Your child needs to learn to read feline body language to determine when kitty is happy and content, and when it’s best to leave her alone. For example, a relaxed cat who is enjoying the attention will take an active role by rubbing against your child’s hands or clothing, or leaning against him. Other signs of pleasure are tail held high, and purring.
But if the cat is swishing her tail back and forth, or if the tail is fluffed out, lowered to the ground, or tucked underneath, she’s feeling irritated or anxious. She may also lower and move her ears back, growl, or show her claws.
- Pet kitty the right way. There’s a right and a wrong way to pet a cat. The right way is with an open hand and a soft, gentle stroke. The wrong way involves poking, pulling or grabbing of any kind. If your child is very young, you might want to guide his hand as he pets the cat. I have found teaching young kids to stroke cats with one finger, focusing on a very light touch, is often the least stressful approach for kitties.
Also teach your child to touch the cat only on her back, shoulders, neck and the top of the head – paws, tail and tummy are off-limits.
- Hold kitty the right way. Kids tend to make sudden, unpredictable moves, and cats don’t take kindly to surprises. That’s why it’s really important to teach your child how to hold your cat. Suddenly grabbing up and restraining a surprised cat is a good way to get scratched or bitten. It also tends to send the cat scurrying each time she sees your child approaching.
Help your child understand that cats must be allowed to do things their way, in their own time, and that forcing a cat to do anything is counterproductive. Have your child sit down and invite kitty onto his lap, which may require a lure such as treats or a toy. If the cat will sit in your child’s lap, make sure he touches her with an open hand and gentle strokes. As soon as the cat is ready to move away, your child should let her (at all times, not just this once).
- Pick up kitty the right way. When your child is ready for the next step – learning to pick the cat up, he should place one hand under the chest and the other supporting the rear legs to lift the cat’s weight evenly. He should then gently hold the cat against his upper body for added balance and to make kitty feel more secure.
As soon as the cat wants down – she may push away, look toward the floor, move her ears backward, or twitch her tail – your child should immediately and gently lower her to the floor or another stable surface.
- Play like a cat. Normal child play is much noisier and more rambunctious than the average cat can tolerate, so if your youngster wants to play with kitty, he needs to learn to play on her terms. No shouting, jumping, or running, as those activities will just frighten her away. Interact with kitty during your child’s “quiet time” when he’s learning how to sit still, use his “inside voice” and be patient. Spending quiet time together with your cat will build her trust with your child.
Teach your child to use a toy when playing with the cat so kitty doesn’t get the idea that clawing and biting human hands is okay.
- Do not disturb a hiding cat. Cats hide for a reason, whether it’s under the bed, behind the fridge, or on a high closet shelf. Disturbing a hiding cat, for example, going under the bed for her or pulling her out of her spot, may cause her to bite or scratch. Your child should understand that the cat should be left alone to come out on her own, or lured out with food, treats, or an interactive toy.
- Give kitty private time. To help your child understand that cats are independent creatures who enjoy spending time alone, if possible, have him help you arrange hiding spots for kitty. Teach your child to leave the cat alone when she’s in one of her private areas.
- Cats are not dogs. Or humans. It’s very important that your child understands the nature of cats as a species very different from every other species. It’s also important your youngster knows that pets aren’t toys that can be set aside or discarded. They also aren’t small, strange looking humans.
When children learn why the animals in their care do what they do, and need what they need, it expands their understanding, compassion, and desire to be the best pet guardians they can be.
If you’d like more information on helping your child appreciate the fabulous feline species, you can download this informational brochure sponsored by the European Pet Food Industry Federation as part of an initiative to help teach Europe’s youngest citizens about responsible pet ownership.