Children and Cats: What Parents Should Know

by Mary Jane Checchi

Children and Cats.
"One time," explained eleven-year-old Sarah, "I was mad at everyone in my family, and there was no one left for me to talk to. I was in my room, and my cat Ashby came and curled up next to me."

"Yes," chimed in Alice, her younger sister. "A cat can cheer you up."

A cat is a friend, a playmate, a comfort. Although I agree with writer Mary Bly that "Dogs come when they are called; cats take a message and get back to you," it is still true that the bond between a cat and a child can be strong and deep.

Cat Needs.
Cats have become the most popular pet in America, partly because they do not need to be walked outdoors, and thus can fit into the busy lifestyles of today's families. But cats still need attention every day.

Tabby CatIn addition to the basics — regular veterinary check-ups, healthy diet, scratching post, clean litter box — cats need affection and stimulation: grooming, toys, people or another cat to play with and a perch by a window from which to watch the world. They need to exercise, climb, stretch, and — because cats normally sleep fifteen to eighteen hours a day — they need a place to sleep or doze undisturbed.

Characteristics Affecting Children.
A cat, with his small size, delicate grace, and waving tail, is an inviting object to a child who may be too young to comprehend that the "object" is a living creature, and wonders, "Can I bounce this like a ball? Can I grab it like a toy?"

The normal, exuberant behavior of children often is threatening to cats. Quick movements and loud noises startle them, and being chased frightens them. A full-grown cat, on average, weighs only about ten pounds; even a young child is large by comparison.

Being stepped on or dropped by a child can cause serious injury to a cat or kitten. Even if there is no physical injury, a feline who is roughly treated is likely to become fearful and unfriendly, and more likely to lash out the next time that a child begins to tease.

A cat's preferred defense, when feeling threatened, is to run away. A cat who can not escape unwanted attention may hiss, scratch, or bite — a painful or frightening experience for a child.

Parents' Role.
Because young children can not always handle a cat gently, or control their impulse to grab, yell, and chase, parents should not leave preschoolers alone with kittens and cats. It's advisable to keep them different rooms or supervise their interactions when they are together.

Knowing how to handle and play with a cat does not always come naturally to children, but parents can teach them. Parents will find it helpful to read a good book about cats, and to read an appropriate age-level book about cats with their children. Children need to learn:

  • how to pick up, hold, pet, and play with a cat
  • how to read cat body language, and understand when a cat is signaling
    "Leave me alone!"
  • not to disturb a cat who is eating or sleeping
  • not to roughhouse with a cat

Choosing a Cat.
Take your children with you to an animal shelter or rescue league when you are ready to adopt a feline friend. The kitten or cat you pick out should be alert and have bright eyes, a glossy coat, and nose free of discharge.

Black and White CatLook for a cat or kitten who is friendly and comfortable around children; some cats prefer adults, and are nervous around children. A friendly feline will not cower away from you, try to hide, or hiss when you pick him up.

If you have preschool children, I recommend that, instead of a kitten, you adopt an adult cat that is used to being with children. Kittens are fragile, easily injured, and require more monitoring, care, and attention than older cats. They also come equipped with sharp, needle-like teeth that they use to explore, play, and even express affection, and this can be a painful surprise for children.

Two cats or kittens will keep each other company when no one else is home to entertain them. Your bills for veterinary care, food, and litter will double, but so will your fun.

Both male and female cats are wonderful pets, as long as they are altered. Cats who are not spayed or neutered make very difficult pets, and have more health problems.

Children and Cat Care.
Before you bring your cat home, refer to a good book to learn the details of caring for a cat. (Even if you have owned cats before, you might learn something new.) Make a list of cat care chores, and assign them to family members.

While it is the rare child who can be expected to provide all or even most of a cat's care, it is a good idea to involve children in these tasks. They will better understand, and form a closer bond with their cat when they share responsibility for her care.

Use your common sense, and your knowledge of your child's capabilities and schedule, to decide what chores she can reasonably be expected to handle. It will be your job to teach her what to do, to supervise, and to pinch-hit when necessary. Here are some suggestions:

  • Three to five years old: Put away cat food. Fill water bowl by pouring from a plastic bottle.
  • Five to seven years old: Wash out food and water bowls. Pour pre-measured dry food into bowl.
  • Seven to ten years old: Measure out dry food. Open pop-top can and spoon out canned food.
  • Ten to twelve years old: Scoop out litter box.
  • Teenagers: Wash out litter box, change litter. Comb or brush cat.
  • All ages: Play with, pet, and enjoy your cat or kitten.