Kids and cats can be the best of friends. Animals are often great for kids, as they help develop empathy and a sense of responsibility in a child. But let’s face it, kids - and cats for that matter- are weird. They scream, jump around, make unpredictable movements and are still learning the concept of personal boundaries. Now imagine being the size of a cat. Sure, you have fangs and claws but you really don’t want to piss something that big off. So how do you gauge just how safe you are and how close you should let them get? After all, you know that they mean well.
At the same time, most kids love animals. While they can be a little scary for some kids, they’re often better than dolls as they actually interact with you and respond to what you’re doing. Unfortunately, this can lead to experimentation on the animal to see how they’ll respond. Not to mention that kids typically are the smallest in the family - having someone smaller than you nearby means you get to tell someone else what to do for once. And that is something that a cat rarely responds well to. So how do you teach your kids to interact with the cat in a respectful way so they can build up your kitty's trust and recognise your kids for what they really are - awesome cuddle suppliers and just as fond of play-time with a ribbon as they are?
Step 1: introducing the kids to the cat
When first acquiring a kitty, check on their background. Are they used to kids already? Have they been socialised with them? Is it a kitten that is still learning, or an adult cat who’s not seen kids in their life before? It’s easier to get a cat who already knows that kids aren’t necessarily aliens that are out to get them, or get a kitten who has been handled plenty and socialised with humans properly so far. But with some patience and the right approach, even an older cat with zero kid experience will come to love your darlings.
When you bring the kitty home, make sure they first get the time they need to acclimatise in a separate room. So, tell your kids that while you are bringing home kitty, introductions will have to wait a little until the cat is actually comfortable in their home. Naturally, they’ll be a little disappointed, but the cat will be a lot more receptive after its recovered from the shock of the move. With kittens, this will probably only a few hours, if that. With an adult cat, it could take a couple of days.
Once the cat is ready, open the door and have your kids just be in the room. Depending on the age, the following instructions might be hard for them but if possible, it will speed up the process of getting to know the cat:
- Do not stare - if you must look, blink a lot, as staring is the mark of a predator which means danger to a cat.
- Let kitty come up to you instead of going to it yourself, so they can set the pace and control the situation
- If they check you out, do not move or if you have to move, use SLOW movements as they’ll be scared off otherwise
These three things are the reasons why - ironically - people who aren’t fond of cats always end up with kitty on their lap when visiting a friend's house.
Once the cat is comfortable and greeting everyone with their tail up (and this may take several sessions), you can move on to bribing them with treats and enticing them with fishing rod toys. From there on, the kids and your new fur ball should easily become best buds.
Step 2: teaching the kids how to interact with the animal
- Do not pull the tail or the ears and do not rub the belly as these are sensitive areas for most cats and might get you clawed.
- Just like you would not push another kid, you should respect kitty's private space when they indicate they want to be left alone. Teach them the signals that cats use to indicate this - and try to make it clear that these signals are a big deal for a kitty.
- Swishing tail (meanwhile dogs do this to communicate excitement!)
- Ears back
- Tapping you with a paw, without the nails (the next one will come with nails)
- Nipping your hand without actually biting (the next time it will be a bite)
See if you can explain to them that if they respect the cats wishes and listen to these signals, the cat will likely want to be near them more as they know they can trust them to listen and respect their wishes.
- When holding a cat, always support their chest and their rear properly - show them how this is done properly, so the cat can feel safe in their hands.
- Do NOT play with the cat using your hands as this will teach them that biting skin is acceptable which leads to you having an aggressive cat - always use a fishing rod toy or a ribbon (just don’t leave them lying around as eating those can cause internal damage)
- Always introduce yourself first when approaching kitty by holding out your hand to sniff. Approach straight ahead instead of hovering your hand over them as this feels threatening.
- Explain to them that the cat likes them just fine but might not want to lie on their lap as it is too small to be comfortable and show them how to make a spot next to them on the couch to curl up in.
Afterwards, monitor your kids until you are sure that they got the hang of how to talk to their kitty so they can have fun together. With younger kids, keep an eye on them and teach them each trick as they are ready to understand it. Do not let a child hurt or antagonise an animal as the chances of them getting hurt - both of them - is quite real. Even with an animal that will tolerate just about anything - it just isn’t fair towards the animal to have to put up with stuff like that. And please do not punish an animal for defending their personal boundaries to a child that is ignoring every signal in the book. Intervene before things escalate and revisit the rules before with your child so that situations like this can be avoided.