(Published in Your Cat Magazine October 2015 issue).
It’s been estimated that around 18% of households in the UK own a cat, and it’s no surprise. Typically they’re quiet, small, and relatively easy to care for – a perfect match for busy families with kids. However, if children aren’t given suitable guidance on how to interact appropriately with cats, it can result in a stressful situation for all involved.
Child health and wellbeing
Research has shown that babies who grow up in homes with a cat are less likely to get poorly than children who live pet-free. The presence of cats has also been linked with a lower risk of allergies among babies. Researchers think that exposure to pet dander, as well as the microbes that pets carry into the home from outdoors, could prime babies’ developing immune systems and prepare them to fend off attacks from common allergens and bugs. This doesn’t mean you should get a cat specifically to protect your child from colds, but it does mean you don’t need to consider getting rid of your cat due to concerns that it may affect your child’s health negatively.
Raising children with cats also provides many psychological and social benefits, including:
- Teaching empathy and compassion
- Providing love, loyalty and affection
- Developing self-esteem
- Promoting physical activity
- Teaching responsibility
- Understanding life cycles
- Providing a connection to nature
Most children are naturally drawn to cats, and many times children plead with parents for a new cat or kitten with the promise of being the ones who will take full responsibility. Before introducing a new cat into the home, it’s important to lay some ground rules to ensure everyone’s safety – an overenthusiastic toddler could hurt a cat, and cat scratches and bites can present fairly serious health risks to your child.
As a family, decide on a list of rules and duties concerning the new cat. For example, make sure the cat is always left alone when sleeping. A baby gated, childfree, ‘safe zone’ with a sleeping area and feeding location is essential in homes with small children, so the cat has an area it can go if it feels too overwhelmed. Litter trays should also be positioned in quiet areas (i.e. not through-fares), which are inaccessible to children. Give your children age-appropriate duties but be sure to monitor so the cat never suffers when the child falls short in their responsibility or is simply too young to know what the cat needs. Older children can be involved in replenishing food and water bowls and gently brushing the cat under supervision – these are great ways for children to start learning responsibility for other living beings.
Children are not able to monitor the cat’s health, changes in appetite, litter tray habits or behaviour accurately, so parents must be on board in the decision to get and look after a cat properly.
Take the time to teach your children how cats should be handled, how to read body language (for children age-appropriate) so they know when a cat is asking them to move away, and when/where cats should be left alone.
It’s important to teach about compassion, and understanding how animals have feelings such as fear and confusion, and experience pain. Dressing the cat up in doll’s clothes and putting it in a pram may make for a funny photo but it can be stressful and frightening for the cat and can lead to a fear of being around children. If you teach your children how to care for cats compassionately, they are more likely to develop a life-long affection for these loveable felines.
Ensuring introductions are a success
Homes with children are often louder and more stressful than homes without them. New kittens and cats are going to need several days of quiet time when they are first brought into a new home.
Provide plenty of escape opportunities from excitable children – for example, shelving, high scratching posts, tops of cupboards or wardrobes, cardboard boxes and under beds. Previously installed baby gates will allow the cat to have control over its environment by being able to leave and not be followed. This alone can greatly help a cat settle into a busy family environment.
Now is the time to build on existing education you have given your children prior to the cat arriving. Initially children should only pick up cats that are extremely tolerant of being picked up, and only if the child is strong enough to support all the cat’s weight. This will prevent the cat having unpleasant and stressful encounters with children as it is trying to settle into its new home. Adult supervision for the first few days is also vital, to protect against any bites or scratches that may occur if the child pushes things too far with the cat before the cat feels totally comfortable around them.
Encouraging children to sit down and calmly feed the cat treats will help build a positive relationship between the cat and child. Providing wand and rod toys for children to play with the cat are a great way for getting kids interacting with the cat without physically (man-)handling it. Both of these actions will help your cat form a positive association with children (i.e. when the kids are around, nice/fun things happen). Limit play to several short sessions a day.
It’s natural for young children to want to grab at the furry creature. A toddler needs to be taught how to stroke with an open hand. For older children, regular picking up of cats should be limited to very sociable and tolerant cats that actively enjoy it.
Children of all ages can be taught most of the following to greater or lesser degrees:
- Always pick a cat up with one hand supporting its chest and the other supporting its hind legs. A cat can also perch with its front legs on your shoulder, but ensure its back legs are supported.
- Cats should NEVER be picked up by the scruff of the neck.
- If a cat struggles or tries to get away, let go. If the cat runs away, do not chase it.
- Body language such as ears pulled back, tail twitching, tongue flicking, or wide eyes indicate the cat is not happy and should be left alone.
- When playing with a cat, always use toys. Trying to entice the cat to catch your hands or fingers can encourage the cat to use teeth and claws.
- If a cat is sleeping, eating or using the litter tray, leave it alone.
- Show children how to gently stroke the cat’s head and back, avoiding more sensitive areas such as tail, feet and tummy. Stroke the child’s arm gently to demonstrate how nice it feels. Explain how poking, grabbing or pulling fur, tails, and ears would hurt the cat.
- Keep voices quiet around the cat.
- Never put faces near a pet. Scratches and bites to the head and neck are both most common and most dangerous.
- There is a difference between teasing and playing.
Cats will learn to enjoy living with children if they are treated with care and in turn children will reap the benefits of cat ownership. Cats can enrich a childhood and create many happy memories to reflect on as children grow into teenage-hood and beyond.
If you’re worried about introducing a cat to your family, you can seek professional help by visiting www.apbc.org.uk.