Today my daughter asked me to email her some photos of her hugging our Singapura cat Levi (in the image above), who sadly passed away in March 2017. He came to our home when my children were two and one, so they have had him almost all of their lives. Losing him has been hard on all of us, but it has also reminded me of just how much he gave to my children.
Cats and children make excellent companions. Both have endless amounts of love for each other, cats teach children patience, the importance of caring for another living being, and both can provide each other with hours of play. There are some guidelines for children and cats to keep both safe.
Bringing home a new cat:
It is an exciting time bringing home a new cat, especially for children, but a new home can be stressful for any cat. It is recommended one room be set up for the cat with his litter tray, food and water bowls and a comfortable bed. Let the children visit him, with supervision, but give him a chance to get to know the new people and his surroundings before giving him access to the entire house. Cats are amazingly good at hiding and take it from personal experience, a hiding kitten can take hours to find inside the house.
Picking up cats:
Children under the age of around 6 should not pick up a cat and walk around with him. The average cat weighs 5kg, which is a lot to a child. If they want to hold a cat, they should do so when they are sitting down on the sofa.
A lot of cats don’t mind where they are stroked, any attention is good attention, other cats can be a little sensitive, particularly around the belly. As the parents, it is up to you to gauge your cat’s tolerance and guide your children. Most cats love to be stroked on the head, between the ears and they love to be scratched on the back, just near the base of the tail.
Some cats can have petting-induced aggression, that is, they may attack when they are stroked. We had a cat (who was adopted at 6 weeks old, which is way too young) who attacked people when he had had enough of being stroked. Signs he was getting ready to launch an attack included waving his tail and looking away into the distance, for a quick escape once he’d bitten. In our case, from the moment they could understand, they were told not to go near him. He didn’t ever harm the children, but that is because they left him alone. You can certainly strenghten the relationship your children have with any cats by letting the children feed them (with your supervision) and give them treats, but sometimes some cats would prefer to be left alone.
Caring for cats:
I think it is important for children to learn about the responsibility of caring for a cat. That includes feeding, making sure they have clean, fresh water and grooming. But I can not emphasise this enough, a cat is the responsibility of the adults in the household.
Older children (over 10) can also clean out litter trays. I do not think that children should be given these chores without parental supervision. My children help with the cats, but 9 times out of 10, I have to ask or remind them. They very rarely initiate.
Keep your cat’s claws regularly trimmed so that if he does scratch your child, there is less chance of him hurting them. Claw trimming should begin when your kitten is young so that he gets used to it.
If you are at all worried about young children being scratched by a cat, Soft Paws are a great solution. These covers are glued on top of your cat’s own claws.
Your children’s friends:
I have managed to teach my children that if they come inside, close the door after them. They’ve had this drilled into them since they were tiny and it is automatic to them now. However, I have noticed that their friends aren’t quite so diligent with closing doors. So, if you have an indoor only cat, make sure you regularly check doors and drill into your children’s friends that they must keep external doors closed to stop the cat getting out. I have repeated this to friends a hundred times, and they still forget. So do keep an eye on doors when your children are having playdates, or lock up the cat in a bedroom until the friends are gone.
Also, watch other children and how they handle the cat. My children are now fairly good with our two cats, having grown up around them, however, I have noticed their friends can sometimes push the boundaries with my cats. Not picking up on the body language, trying to drag them around like a doll. So when you have young guests over, do watch over them. I know children mean well, but when they haven’t grown up around cats they don’t always know when the cat has had enough.
Kitten vs adult cat:
Kittens are cute, but they can also be fragile. I do not recommend getting a small kitten if your children are under 4 years of age. If you do want a kitten, see if you can adopt one who is 4-5 months of age.
No matter how well-intentioned a child may be, they often don’t realise just how strong they are. A 1kg kitten is no match for a 15-20kg child.
Cat body language:
Your children must be taught to read your cat’s body language. They must also be taught when to leave the cat alone. Crossing boundaries will lead to your child being scratched or bitten by a scared, angry or upset cat.
Give your cats a safe place to go:
When I was growing up, we had two Siamese cats. Their bed was a cat carrier in the kitchen, next to the radiator. My parents had the rule that if the cats were in their bed, we were not to disturb them. That was their safe haven, and they knew that they could go in there if they wanted to get away from the humans (especially us children).
Cat trees come in all shapes and sizes and can be a great solution for your cat. Most cats love to climb and a tall cat tree can give your cat a place to get away from it all. If you are worried about your toddler hurting himself by trying to climb the cat tree, a small playpen can be placed around it which will keep little children out.
Child-friendly breeds of cat:
Most breeds of cat can happily live with children, but some breeds are certainly more child-friendly. These include:
- Devon Rex
Keeping your cat and your children safe:
The following are good guidelines to teach your child to keep your cat happy and safe and avoid mishaps.
- Never to pull the cat by the tail or legs.
- Leave the cat alone when he is sleeping, eating, going to the toilet or in his safe place.
- Wash hands after handling the cat.
- Stay away from the litter tray.
- Understand body language. Flattened ears, growling, raised hackles and hissing are all warning signs to leave the cat alone.
- Avoid yelling and screaming around cats.
- Not to pick up the cat, unless they are older, and have been taught how to properly hold a cat.
- Not to feed the cat food for humans.
- Not to ever give any kind of medicine to a cat.
Cat litter trays:
It is a good idea to put litter trays in a room such as a laundry with a child gate across the door when your children are babies or toddlers to keep them away from the trays, this also guarantees that your cat can go to the toilet without being disturbed.
Children (and adults) can catch a number of diseases from cats. While many of these infections are rare, they do occur. These include:
- Cat scratch disease
- Campylobacter jejuni
- Leptospira Infection (leptospirosis)
- Plague (Yersinia pestis)
It is extremely important to teach children to wash their hands after handling pets. Never allow them to clean litter trays until they are at least ten years of age (if not older). If you have a cat who goes outside, regularly clean up feces from the garden.
Can my child catch worms from the cat?
It is possible for your child to catch worms, but this occurs via soil contaminated with cat (or dog) feces. Worms can not complete their life cycle in a human however once infected with hookworms, they can migrate to other parts of the body (known as cutaneous larva migrans). It is possible for the worms to migrate to the eyes, causing blindness. This highlights the importance of regularly treating your cat for parasites.
Cats should be wormed every 1-3 months depending on the type of worming medication they are on and they should be treated for fleas.
The takeaway message:
Cats and children go wonderfully together. I do believe that they have taught my children responsibility as well as compassion. Now they are teenagers, they have a little more responsibility for caring for our cats, but the bulk of the cat chores still remains with me.
The love, laughter and companionship that our cats have brought to our children can not be underestimated. They have so much to give.
Children and pet euthanasia:
Deciding if your children will be with your cat when he is euthanised is such a personal choice both for both the parents and the children. Certainly, very young children should be kept away. Euthanasia is a stressful time, and a young child can often be a handful, not understanding what is happening.
I have always given my own children the choice to be with a cat when it is euthanised. My daughter always comes along, but my son prefers not to go. There is no right or wrong choice.