Cats and kids make wonderful companions, but their interactions can be a recipe for disaster if children aren't taught how to play with cats. Cats have sharp claws and are ready to use them if they feel threatened or stressed, and kids, especially young ones, tend to enjoy the sort of loud noises and physical energy that cats find threatening or stressful.
Don't think this means your youngest residents are a bad match for each other; with the right encouragement and circumstances, your cat just might become your kid's best playmate.
Empathy and Trust
Interaction and play between cats and kids is an opportunity for learning on both sides. For better or worse, lessons will shine through for both cat and child. Having cats at home can teach kids compassion, empathy, and even self-esteem as they care for one another, according to Mother Nature Network. At the same time, cats learn to trust children and develop a fondness through positive behavior. On the other hand, improper play can teach a cat to fear and dislike children. If she responds by lashing out, your kids can develop a fear and mistrust of cats (or animals in general) as a result.
To curb this possibility, it's important to help children understand that their cat is not a toy. As adorable as she may be, she's a living companion who has just as many feelings as her human housemates. And although cats can become frightened of kids if they are too rough, playing gently on her terms will make her more likely to enjoy their company. It's up to children to show the cat she can trust them not to cause any harm.
Why Cats Lash Out
It's important to understand the reasons cats sometimes lash out so a bigger incident can be avoided. Although some cats are grumpy, temperamental, or just plain mischievous, they generally don't bite or use their claws at random. Typically, a cat will throw a swipe because she feels threatened, stressed out, or annoyed at something in her environment. Sometimes, however, a perfectly friendly cat will get overexcited during a playful tickle or when following a toy you're moving around and respond with misplaced aggression.
Rest assured a cat will show warning signs that she's about to strike. You can often avoid an altercation by teaching children to recognize these signs. According to the Humane Society of the United States, a thrashing tail, flattened ears, arched back, growling, and hissing are all cats' ways of saying "back off, or else."
Teaching kids how to properly handle and play with cats will also go a long way toward avoiding mishaps. Of course, it's also important to use common sense in determining whether kid-cat interaction should be allowed in the first place. If your cat has a grouchy temperament or a history of biting and scratching, or if your children are too young to exercise self-control around delicate animals letting them play together probably isn't a good idea just yet.
But there are ways you can encourage safe and fun play between your cats and kids
Set Up a Safe, Relaxed Environment
Be sure your cat has a safe place to escape to when she doesn't like what's happening. Consider a cat tree that's tall enough to put her out of reach of small hands. Cats also love high places because it affords them a full view of their surroundings.
Set the 'Ground' Rules
When talking to your kids on how to play with cats, make sure they understand that they need to stay calm and quiet while playing: no yelling, screaming, running, or jumping. Depending on age and maturity level, kids might also need to be told it's not okay to poke or pull her fur, whiskers, ears, or tail. And if she runs and hides, under no circumstances should kids chase her or try to enter her hiding place. Although this may look to children like the cat is playing hide-and-seek, it's actually a signal that she's had enough, and her feelings should be respected.
Make Slow Introductions
Have children lay still on the floor and slowly hold out a hand for the cat to sniff. The kitty will be more likely to warm up to them if she's allowed to approach them on her own. If she rubs their hand with her face or presses her head into it, take it as a sign that she's ready for some petting.
Supervise Handling, Holding, and Tummy Rubs
Toddlers and pre-school-aged children will likely need to be shown how to stroke kitty's fur without pulling it. You can demonstrate first by stroking their arms to show them how good proper petting feels, then guide their hands as they stroke kitty's back themselves. Keep them away from her face or underside at first, as they're naturally more sensitive areas. Some cats can get overexcited while being petted and bite. With others, petting the tummy is a surefire way to end up with an armful of sharp claws. Even if she rolls over to present it, learn whether she's stretching or inviting before letting your child touch her.
Older kids may hold your cat, but they should be shown how to pick her up properly: one hand firmly supporting her torso and the other hand supporting her rear-end for stability. Children should either sit or stand still while holding their cat, keeping her upright so she still feels in control. It might be tempting to cradle her on her back like a baby, but very few cats enjoy being held in that position.
Cats love interactive play as much as kids do, but cats tire more quickly and can easily get worked up to aggression. Limit playtime to about ten minutes, or when she gets bored and stops, whichever comes first.
Engage Her with Toys
Toys don't need to be fancy. Ping pong balls, crumpled up paper and empty toilet paper tubes are all equipped to captivate a cat's attention and keep her entertained. Let your child gently throw these makeshift toys to see if she chases after them, or place the toy in an empty bathtub where she can bat it around with no one interfering. If she has a favorite toy, chances are she knows what it smells like too; indulge her in a game of hide-and-seek by allowing your child to hide the toy and encouraging her to look for it.
Playing together can be fun and rewarding for cats and kids alike. The keys to making playtime safe are education, supervision, and a respectful attitude toward the cat's feelings. With these bases covered, your cat just might discover she can't get enough of your children's company and vice-versa.
Be sure to check out our other article about interactions between cats and children for more information.
Jean Marie Bauhaus
Jean Marie Bauhaus is fiction author and freelance writer and editor living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She writes frequently about pets and pet health in her home office, where she is assisted by a lapful of furbabies.