At the risk of stating the obvious, cats are not dogs. They’re generally smaller, less tolerant, and have sharper teeth and claws which they keep on a hair trigger. So while you should never leave any pets and children together unsupervised, there are some cat-specific guidelines to follow for everyone’s safety. They are especially important if you have very young kids and cats or kittens.
You might adore your little tyke or tykes, but children can be very stressful for animals. Young children don’t have enough motor control to handle animals gently. Unfortunately, rough handling is likely to result in clawing/scratching and/or biting. Rough handling can also injure kittens who have delicate bones and innards that don’t stand up to manhandling.
In addition to the physical risks to kids and cats, there are also emotional or behavioral risks. Kittens subjected to rough handling can develop a severe aversion to being held and an equally strong mistrust of hands. So just approaching your growing kitten or adult cat with your hands out may elicit some hissing and spitting.
You can avoid all that unpleasantness and keep a happy and harmonious home if you do a little research and are prepared to implement some safety measures for the good of your kids and cats.
The right cat for your kids
Certain cat breeds are considered ‘child-friendly’. However, it’s important to remember that all cats are individuals so don’t assume that every Abyssinian will love your kids or that a scruffy rescue will hate them. According to Catster, instead of looking for the right breed, you should look for the right personality. Child-friendly characteristics include:
- Strong nerves – able to tolerate loud noises and sudden movements
- Relaxed with no resource guarding
- Likes to be cuddled and petted – no sudden claws or biting
You should also consider your child’s personality. If your kids are a bit rough and tumble then you need all of the above qualities, plus a playful nature plus maturity. So no kittens.
The following breeds are deemed sociable and child-friendly, if you have your heart set on a breed.
- Abyssinian – loves to play
- American shorthair – social and energetic
- Birman – easy-going and adaptable
- Burmese – love, love, love people and quiet gentle
- Maine Coon – mellow and love to play but high maintenance
- Manx – thrives on attention
- Persian – relaxed and sociable but prefers calm and quiet, also high maintenance
- Ragdoll – gentle, patient and very affectionate
- Norwegian Forest Cat – large, robust, energetic and affectionate
- Cornish Rex – petite but friendly and playful
Enforce rules for cats and kids
Whether you choose a specific breed or rescue a mixed breed, you need ‘rules of engagement’ for good kid/cat relations.
It’s easier to establish a good relationship between older kids and cats than it is with toddlers and cats or kittens. Toddlers are forever grabbing at things, clutching (and throttling) to show love and affection, which most cats dislike with a passion. Any a toddler who shows that kind affection to a wary cat could end up with some nasty scratches. An interaction like this is bad for both your toddler and cat because it will scar both (physically and emotionally) and make them wary of one another.
Examples of some rules:
- Young children (3 – 4 years old) only ever handle the cat when she’s on mom or dad’s lap.
- Young children (5 – 6 years old) handle the cat at certain supervised parts of the day; e.g., 15 minutes of play in the garden or gentle stroking in front of the TV.
- Young children (7 – 8 years old) can help with feeding to earn additional playtime with kitty.
- Children (9 – 10 years old) can help with cleaning litter boxes and feeding to earn additional playtime with kitty.
- Children (11+) can play brain games and teach kitty tricks, as well as play with toys, etc.
Safety for kids and cats
Remember that there are a couple of health concerns with small children and cats. For example, you don’t want your toddler digging in your cat’s litter box and putting the contents in her mouth. There is the risk that roundworms, toxoplasma and other bacteria will be transmitted if feces are ingested. If your cat has no objections, you can use litter boxes with covers and clean the box regularly.
Never leave dry food out for your cat because a toddler won’t think twice about helping himself, no matter how many times you tell him not to. Dry cat food, like coins and other small objects, presents a choking hazard. You don’t want your toddler eating wet cat food either. It shouldn’t pose any risks other than a nasty aftertaste, but sometimes they are recalled due to salmonella or microbial illness risks. These are just as serious for children as cats.
Your cat should always have a safe place to escape to where your kids can’t bother her and she can rest in peace. Cats that can’t get peace or escape stressful situations get cranky and defensive. They need time to rest and recharge where they can’t be disturbed. You know the saying “let sleeping dogs lie”? Well, that applies to cats too. Baby gates are also a nice way to keep cats and young children apart without confining the cat.
Teach your children to interact responsibly with your cat. Lead by example and show the correct way to handle cats gently and how to play with them without driving everyone’s excitement levels through the roof. This is also a nice way to spend family time, with everyone in the family participating, building bonds and strengthening relationships.
Never, ever leave your cat and young children unsupervised, even if it looks like they’re getting along famously. It takes seconds for kids to pulls your cat’s ear or step on a paw. Your cat defends herself instinctively and tears usually result. Even if all you want to do is fill the kettle, keep the playmates in sight or encourage them to come and play in the kitchen with you.
Teach your children how to hold a cat correctly. Cats (especially kittens) squirm and wiggle about if they’re held too tightly. This makes children increase their grip or drop the poor cat awkwardly. It’s a good idea to teach your child to sit when she wants to hold the cat. Show kids how to gently stroke kitty. Teach them to let go if kitty is unhappy and stressed.
Teach your children to respect your cat and to interact on the cat’s terms. For example, allow the cat to approach them of her own free will, rather than fetching her from a nice nap in the sun.
Patience is a wonderful tool, and if you go about teaching your child and your cat the best ways to interact and manage the situation at all times, you can watch a wonderfully strong bond develop between the two.