Kids and cats aren’t a great mix. Cats are sensitive to noise and moving objects and that’s basically all kids are.
But when children see snuggly, cute kitties, all they want to do is grab them and squeeze them like a teddy bear. And we all know how much cats enjoy that. Yes, some cats are different and are highly social and tolerant, but most cats need a lot of space. You may recall how Tribble was returned to the shelter because the four children in the house apparently mistreated him and their mother didn’t like how he defended himself against the children so he was given up.
To protect the safety of both children and cats, follow these 10 guidelines for how kids should treat cats. Well, not just kids, but people in general. I know lots of men who like to roughhouse with cats like they would a dog and then say they hate cats because cats don’t like it. If you treat cats how they want to be treated, if you can humble yourself to understand their language and behaviour, you can be rewarded with the most loving animal and closest companion you’ve ever known.
1. Educate the child. Cats don’t like people. Sure, we know that our cats actually love us, but by nature they are suspicious and fearful of people, so says this study that studied their personality traits. Conceptually, the child may not fully understand why cats would be suspicious of people, but they should be instructed to be as careful around cats as they should be around any animal who could possibly attack out of fear of humans.
2. Let the cat come to you. When a child reaches out to a cat and the cat runs away, the child inevitably chases them, probably screaming, “KITTY, KITTY!” Neither of these actions will attract Kitty. Instruct the child to sit calmly and to maybe call the cat in a calm voice while providing some treats and the curious cat my come to investigate the waiting child. Or not. It’s up to the cat. But let the child know that it’s natural for cats to want to be left alone, that they’ll come out when they’re ready, and they shouldn’t be offended if the cat doesn’t want to play.
3. Let the cat sniff your hand. Instinctively, children want to poke, prod, grab, and hover over small animals. These movements are very threatening to cats (see #1 above). Show the child that presenting an open palm will allow the cat to come to them on their own time and sniff their hand to assess the risk. Chances are the cat will head bunt their hand showing that petting is allowed.
4. Show them how to pet a cat. Once the cat gives their permission, take the child’s hand in yours and softly stroke the cat’s forehead, shoulders, and back with a gentle, open palm. Gently, softly, tenderly: use these adjectives liberally when teaching the child, and tell them to avoid the belly, paws, face, and tail.
5. Teach the child to read the cat’s body language. When petting the cat, the child should be able to watch for warning signs of an unhappy cat. Head bunting, purring, a lifted tail with a curl on the end are signs of a happy cat. Ears back, a swishing tail, a retracting head, and growling are all signs that something bad is going to happen very soon and the child should stop interacting with the cat.
6. Never pull a cat’s tail. Kids are used to manipulating their environment and testing their boundaries. If they try to manipulate a cat’s tail and test their reaction, they’re likely to get scratched. The video below angers me to such a degree that I can’t comment here what I think of the adults laughing at the child pulling the cat’s tail. “It’s declawed!” says the video’s owner in the comment section regarding the danger of the cat hitting the child’s face. First of all, they need to educate the child that cats don’t like having their tails pulled. How would the adults like to have their hair pulled while everyone laughed? Second, they need to educate themselves on declawed cats and the chances that they’ll resort to biting when they can’t use their claws. Third, they’re teaching the child that it is okay to treat an animal like a plaything which could have dire consequences the next time the child tries this. And finally, the cat is not an “it.” Domesticated cats are our animal companions who deserve respect, dignity, space, and our utmost compassion.
7. Tell kids to be careful around cats. Kids are clumsy. They move through the world like drunk adults with their lack of balance and coordination. This makes them very hard to predict which cats don’t like which could cause the cat to retaliate out of fear or to accidentally harm the child or themself when trying to run away. While perhaps improbable, tell the child they need to remain calm and quiet while in the presence of a cat.
8. Teach the child how to play properly with a cat. Tell them not to use their hands to interact with a playful cat but to focus on a toy, whether throwing their favourite plaything for them to chase it or gently waving a wand toy. A friend of mine said he let a neighbour’s kid play with his cat and laser toy, but he had to leave the room for a minute. When he returned, the child was pointing the laser directly into the cat’s eye just a couple of inches away which can be dangerous for a cat’s sensitive eyes. Instruct the child on proper use of all toys and/or prohibit the use of ones that may be mishandled.
9. Ensure the cat has a place to hide. If a child is coming to visit your cat, set up a meeting spot in an open area so your cat never feels cornered. Cats naturally look for escape routes in any situation and if they don’t have any, they could barrel over or through the child causing damage in the process.
10. Supervise all interactions. All of these instructions may not mean anything to a child focused on squeezing the cuddly kitty. Monitor and direct all behaviour while remaining calm yourself. You don’t want the child to fear the cat, nor do you want your cat to feel stressful about the interaction. Be sensitive to the associations being made between the child and cat that could leave permanent markers on both personalities.
Unfortunately, I wish I had adhered to all of these points more during Christmas a couple years ago when friends brought their kids and dogs over. I had thought a cursory lesson in cat behaviour would suffice, but read #10 again. I’m convinced that there are times when trying to teach children that all they hear are the wah-wah distortions of Charlie Brown’s teacher. You’ll see in the following video that a child breaks most of the above rules when trying to play with a cat that ruins a slow and sweet greeting between Kodi and the dog, Bella:
But you live and learn. You can’t watch kids constantly but taking the time and effort to sit them down and understand the world of cats in particular and animals in general will go a long way to instilling important life lessons.
If you’ve got any other tips or stories to share, please post below, and let’s help families create a safe and loving environment for children and their feline companions.