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Children and Cats

Many children thoroughly enjoy sharing their lives with pets and some cats share the same feelings. However, to help build a safe and positive relationship between kids and their feline friends, it is important to set both up for success through management, clear communication, and guidelines. 

Before we get started, it’s important to note that we highly recommended an adult is present any time a child is interacting with an animal. The level of supervision depends on the child’s age and ability to follow rules, along with the animal’s comfort level. 

Setting Expectations
While bringing home a cat is an incredibly exciting time for everyone, it is important to create clear expectations for our children. Cats are individuals and, as such, will have individual levels of tolerance for petting, sensitivity around resources, and sensitivity about noise and activity. Although a cat may have lived with children previously, the relationships in a new home will be starting from scratch. Children will need to understand that until they get to know their new cat and their new cat gets to know them, they will need to take a “hands off” approach to interacting. Let them know that petting is only allowed when the cat approaches them and solicits attention, and only when they are in the presence of a supervising adult. If the cat does not approach the child, they will need to give the cat space. This will require a high level of commitment, supervision, and support from the adults in the household. Emphasize that the entire family is responsible for helping your new cat feel safe and secure. All family members should familiarize themselves with cat body language to help them accurately understand their companion’s comfort level and ensure their safety.

Management is one of the most important tools you will use to help your children develop a positive and successful relationship with their new cat. It is important to provide your cat a safe place to go where they can be away from the activities of the family. 

It is beneficial to have barriers and gates in place to prevent your cat from entering spaces where your children are, and other barriers that will allow your cat to jump over or go under while still preventing a young child from following them. Barriers/gates are there to support your supervision plan. 

Setting up a safe space for your cat
It is important for your cat to have a safe space in the home where they are fully comfortable and can avoid interacting with people when they choose. There will be times when you are unable to supervise your cat and child together, or when there are extra children in the home and supervision of the cat with all the children in unrealistic. In these situations, it is important to have a safe space for your cat to spend time so that supervision is not necessary, and everyone stays safe and comfortable. This space should always be available to your cat as a safe place, even when you are able to supervise. 

Since you will be using this room to confine your cat at times, it needs to include all a cat’s necessities. This includes food, water, litter box, comfy bed, toys, and at least one hiding place. Giving them both high and low escape routes will increase their confidence, so you may consider putting a cat tree in the room for those who like a high vantage point, and ensuring they have a cat den, box, or furniture they can easily hide under, too. Help your cat gain positive associations with the room so they become comfortable spending time there. You can do this by giving them treats and enrichment in the room; leave treats in the bed and cat den to encourage them to explore. 

Never allow young children to follow your cat into their safe room. As an adult, you can be in this room with your cat while allowing them to choose to interact or not. However, make sure the activities you are doing in the room are quiet, as your cat should learn that this safe space is consistently a low stress environment, which means low volume. Reading a book or listening to a podcast with headphones in are both great ways to bond with your cat in a low-pressure environment. Keep yourself still and movements predictable while letting them decide if they’d like to approach you for affection or not.

It will be important to slowly build up your cat’s comfort level spending time isolated to this room. Begin by providing them a high-value enrichment item or small plate of canned cat food and closing the door for only a few seconds. If your cat remains relaxed, increase the amount of time the door is closed over time until they can remain in the room for a couple hours if needed. 

Young Children
Very young children (0-5 years) will naturally have very limited impulse control and lack the ability to follow direction consistently from adults. It is important to recognize that even if your young child is typically very polite and calm with your cat, you cannot guarantee that they will always be so. It only takes one misstep to negatively affect the relationship between your cat and children. The expectation for children of this age should be that their relationship is primarily “hands off.” Young children should be redirected away from the cat unless the cat is very clearly soliciting attention from them. Young children are active, noisy and can be quick or unpredictable in their movements, which can be scary for cats. At this age, it’s unrealistic to expect a fairytale bond between your child and cat, and this should not be your goal during this stage. It is most important for your cat to learn that it is safe to simply share space with your young child. This is the foundation for a positive relationship for the rest of their lives.  

If your child is spending time on the floor, you can set up a gate or pen between the cat and small children who are laying on the ground or crawling. This will minimize the likelihood of your child approaching the cat.

If your young child is adamant about petting the cat, it can be helpful to purchase a toy cat that looks as much like your actual cat as possible. If the child wants to pet the actual cat (and the actual cat is not interested in petting), encourage the child to pet the toy cat instead. The toy cat can have the same name as the actual cat. Remember, the toy cat’s purpose is to teach them how to gently and appropriately pet the actual cat, so model and encourage gentle handling with the toy cat in the same way that you would with the actual cat. Even if your cat is soliciting attention, having your child practice soft, gentle pets on a toy before the actual cat can help set your child up for a successful interaction in the future. 

Older Children
Slightly older children (over the age of 5 years) are more capable of following directions and will be able to learn about cat body language. This means that you can begin to instruct them on concepts like the “Three Second Rule.” This is a practice where you pet the cat for three seconds, take your hands away, and pause to read the cat’s body language. If the cat walks away, the interaction should end. If the cat looks uncomfortable (ears swiveled to the side, pupils dilated, tail twitching, etc.) that is a cue for the adult to instruct the child to walk away from the cat. If the cat solicits more petting (nudges their hand, leans into the child, etc.) the child can pet the cat for three more seconds and then pause again to re-assess the cat’s body language. These interactions should still be closely supervised by an adult.  

Many teenagers can take an active role in the care of the family cat. Feeding, training them, playing with toys, and providing enrichment are great ways for your teenager to build a positive relationship with your cat. Keep in mind that teens may be tempted to be overly relaxed with your new cat and should receive support, supervision, and guidance about cat body language until they are both comfortable and are interacting in a consistent, safe manner. Even teens may need to be reminded that your new cat will need space and time to acclimate to any life changes and should only interact if the cat chooses to approach your teen.  

Although cats are generally an easy size for teens to scoop up and hold, remind teens that not all cats enjoy being held. It is important for them to build a relationship with the cat prior to picking the cat up. There may be some cats who never enjoy being held or picked up and it is important for all family members to understand and respect the cat’s choice. 

Clear rules that should apply for ALL children: 

  • Children should never attempt to pull a cat out of a hiding place or cat den.
  • Children should not attempt to touch or interact with cats while they are eating food or chewing on an edible item.
  • Children should never interrupt or attempt to interact with a cat while they are using the litter box.
  • Children should never attempt to interact with a cat while it is sleeping.
  • Children should never attempt to lay on the cat.
  • Young children should never attempt to pick up a cat (teenagers, with the support and supervision of their parents, may be able to pick up some cats depending on the cat’s individual comfort level).
  • No hitting, pulling, pushing, or yelling at the cat under any circumstances.
  • Children should never hug or kiss the cat 

Types of Interactions to Encourage: 

Passively Sharing Space
It is important to teach your children and cat to be relaxed while sharing space with each other without the pressure of physical interaction. A great way to set this up is to give each of them an activity on separate sides of the room. That might be setting your child up with art supplies at a table and your cat with a treat-dispensing toy on the other side of the room. You could also sit down to watch a movie with your child while your cat receives petting from another adult. Give your child the opportunity to pick out what each of their activities will be and work on building enthusiasm for this type of interaction. Be sure to remind them about not approaching the cat while they have a resource or are playing. If your child attempts to approach the cat during these times, redirect your child to another activity or end interaction. 

Playing with Toys
If your cat enjoys playing with toys, that can be a great way for your child to interact with them. Always provide your child with wand type toys like a cat charmer or feather wand, as the long handles increase the space between them and the cat. When cats play, they are acting out the same behaviors they would show while hunting prey (pouncing, leaping, swatting, biting, etc.). Never allow your child to manually engage your cat in play with small toys, such as a glitter ball or toy mouse. This type of play puts their hands and even face too close to the prey-focused cat, leaving them vulnerable to inadvertent scratches or bites. If your cat prefers small toys like jingle balls or mice, consider gathering them all into a small basket then having the child toss a toy across the room for the cat to chase. Once they have stopped batting around the toy, the child can toss another out to them, keeping a safe distance and repeating the process until they’re out of toys. Once your basket is empty, that is the end of the play session; do not go and gather the toys until much later when the cat has either left the room or is calm and resting.

It’s also important to remind your child to never pet the cat during playtime, and they should give them plenty of time and space after a play session to calm down before attempting to interact. A cat in prey mode will likely treat a hand offered for petting as something to be hunted rather than seeing it as a friendly gesture. 

Some cats show a behavior referred to as overstimulation with play. This describes a cat who will redirect their play behavior from the toy to the human (generally their feet or hands) during a play session. This results in the cat play-biting or swatting the person facilitating the play session. If your cat begins to show this behavior, it’s important to stop your child from engaging them in any play sessions.  

Older children can assist and/or conduct training sessions with your cat. Cats are intelligent and active creatures who excel when given learning opportunities and can follow similar cues to dogs such as sit, down, shake, etc. Be sure to use exclusively use positive reinforcement, rewarding the desired behaviors rather than punishing the bad. This will be a great opportunity for your cat to have positive interactions with your child. For more information, check out Karen Pryor’s book Getting Started: Clicker Training for Cats.

Creating and Giving Enrichment 
Daily mental and physical enrichment is an important part of your cat’s daily life. One great option for mental enrichment is treat-dispensing toys. There are many ways to create your own enrichment items for your cat. Turning this into an art project for your children will give them an opportunity to be involved in your new cat’s care and will be beneficial for your cat. Your child can create the items and then choose your cat’s mental enrichment each day. This is an especially great way to give your child an active role in your new cat’s life, even if the cat is not comfortable with physical interaction with your child.  

Visiting Children
Even if your family cat is doing well with your own children, that is not a guarantee that they will enjoy the company of new, visiting children. Families with children will likely also entertain their children’s friends and will need to be prepared to manage those interactions and set ground rules the moment the visitors walk in the door. Be sure to utilize your cat’s safe space when new children are coming over and be sure that you never leave your cat unattended with any kids. Your cat’s body language should be closely monitored.

Remember, petting should never be forced. Holding your cat in place in any way – even to introduce them to well-meaning guests – is unfair and inappropriate; it will degrade trust build between you and your cat, and it will teach children unsafe animal handling habits. Some cats simply do not enjoy petting and it will be important to foster a positive relationship through other types of interactions. It is incredibly important that your cat always has a choice in whether to interact with people, but especially children. Be sure that your cat has the option to move away and leave any interaction that they are having with a child.