By Dr. Becker
If your child has started to show interest in having a pet, there’s obviously a lot to consider, including what type of animal companion makes sense for your youngster’s age and your family’s lifestyle. Many parents feel dogs are too high-maintenance as starter pets for kids, so they adopt a kitten or adult cat, believing it will be easier to care for.
The mistake many people make, however, is assuming cats are essentially small, less needy dogs. The reality is that while kitties are furry and walk on all fours like dogs, they’re different in almost every other way.
For example most dogs, especially puppies, tend to be noisy, playful and impulsive — just like young children. Cats, on the other hand — and this includes most kittens — do not appreciate the types of interactions dogs and kids enjoy. Loud sounds, sudden movements and roughhousing are definitely not their cup of tea.
If your child doesn’t understand how to interact appropriately with her cat, sadly, kitty will probably avoid her, which obviously defeats the whole purpose of getting her a pet. The thing about kitty companions is they need to be cared for on their own terms — not your child’s. Kids who learn this secret can enjoy a mutually beneficial, lifelong relationship with their cat.
9 Ways to Help Your Child Be Her Cat’s BFF
1. Supervise every kid-kitty interaction. Until your child is a pro at knowing when and how to handle her 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 she interacts with your cat, you can give praise when she treats kitty gently and with respect, and redirect her behavior as necessary.
2. 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 kitty is swishing her tail back and forth, or her 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.
3. 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 her hand as she 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.
4. 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 running each time she sees your child approaching. Help him understand that cats must be allowed to do things their way, in their own time, and 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 go (at all times, not just this once).
5. Pick up kitty the right way. When your child is ready for the next step —learning to pick the cat up, she should place one hand under the chest and the other supporting the rear legs to lift the cat’s weight evenly. She should then gently hold the cat against her 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.
6. 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.
7. 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 a favorite toy.
8. 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.
9. 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. 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.