iCatCare Advice: Introducing Cats and Children

This article first appeared on iCatCare here.

There is no reason not to have a cat or kitten if you have children. It is up to parents to teach their children from the very beginning how to approach, stroke and handle cats and to treat them kindly. Many children have fantastic relationships with their cats and learn about respecting other creatures and being gentle – it is done successfully all the time, but it is up to parents to lay down the rules. Taking on a new kitten when you have a new baby or a toddler might be a lot to handle at once, so ensuring you have time for all the parties is part of a successful solution.

When weighing up the pro’s and con’s, parents need to accept that the majority, if not all, of the chore-based care, will be carried out by them, no matter how many promises the children make prior to acquisition. A new kitten or cat needs a great deal of commitment particularly in the early stages so the whole family has to play a role, even if it is agreeing to participate in regular playtime.

The choice of cat or kitten is important as there are definitely those individuals who are more ‘family-friendly’ than others. The ideal feline companion would be confident and well socialised to both adults and children, with an apparently endless tolerance of handling and affection. However, even with the most tolerant cats, it is the parent’s role to teach a child how to appropriately behave around a cat, how to approach, interact and handle them as well as how to read the signs when a cat has had enough and always respect their need for time alone. In households where the children are boisterous, it is probably wise to make the decision not to have a pet, at least for the while. In most cases, very nervous and timid cats will find living with children incredibly stressful, and cats with these types of temperament should be avoided.

Some rehoming centres advise against cats being adopted by households with young children, judging the noise, disruption and over-enthusiastic handling to be potentially stressful. However, others will judge each case on its own merits and carefully match the appropriate kitten with the right family. It is therefore worth persevering and approaching a number of rehoming facilities if you have experienced one with a ‘no homes with children’ policy. If you have decided you wish to get a pedigree kitten, consider which breeds may be better suited to children, eg, those that are generally tolerable to handling.

Once the decision has been made, it would be helpful to establish the house rules before the cat arrives. For example:

  • which family member is responsible for each chore (feeding, litter tray cleaning etc)?
  • where will the cat sleep (although the bedroom is often an exciting prospect, this should be discouraged if your child suffers from any allergies)?
  • which rooms will be out of bounds?
  • what level of attention is appropriate during the settling in period?
  • what places are going to be designated for the cat only and children are not allowed to touch the cat or interrupt him/her while he is there? Such places should include the litter trays and a number of resting places such as cardboard boxes or high platforms

Before your new cat arrives you will need to register with your local veterinary practice as cats and kittens need regular treatment for worms and fleas as these could be a potential health hazard for your family (several sources suggest that older cats pose less risk of disease transmission to humans so are more suitable for families with young children).

The new cat should be settled into the room with all the necessary resources like food, water, comfortable resting areas, elevated places where the cat can go as well as places they hide and a litter tray. Keeping the new cat in this room for several days will not only allow it to settle into its new surroundings more easily. This room should ideally be in a quiet part of the house, not a kitchen for example.

Every member of the family should understand the importance of security by keeping external doors and windows shut during the first few weeks when the kitten or cat is settling into its new home. Your new cat will need plenty of escape opportunities from excitable or fractious children, for example, shelving, tall cat activity centres/scratching posts, tops of cupboards or wardrobes, cardboard boxes and under beds. Now is the time to build on existing education you have given your children prior to the cat arriving about how to be gentle around cats and how to hold a cat appropriately, for example, cats need support under the front and hind legs. Children should only pick up cats that are tolerant of being picked up and only if they are strong enough to support all the cat’s weight. For young children, this should always be supervised. This will prevent the cat from having unpleasant and stressful encounters with children as it is trying to settle into the home. It will also help safeguard 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. Regular picking up of cats should be limited to kittens or very sociable and tolerant adult cats that actively enjoy it.

It can be difficult to teach a toddler to handle a cat appropriately. The temptation for a small child is often to squeal with excitement, chase and grab so the need for escape strategies is essential. Baby gates preventing toddlers from climbing stairs or preventing movement from room to room are a great asset to the cat under these circumstances and many will seek refuge upstairs or in another room. They allow the cat to feel control over its environment by being able to leave and not be followed and this alone can greatly help a cat settle into a busy family environment. Furthermore, it is very important, especially with young children, that there is at least one room that the cat can retreat to as a ‘safe place’ within the house. This is an area that the children cannot access and the cat can go if it feels too overwhelmed.

A few extra considerations are probably necessary for those youngsters less capable of following rules:

  • Litter trays, food and water bowls are often irresistible so these should ideally be located in areas where the child does not have access
  • Make the experience pleasant for the cat as well by offering food treats as a reward for tolerating the child’s attention
  • For older children, allow them the opportunity to feed the cat treats to help the cat associate children as a positive experience
  • Letting the children play with the cat with wand and rod toys is a great way for getting the children involved with the cat without physically handling the cat if it does not enjoy this. Again, it will help your cat view children positively
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