One of the leading reasons that cats are relinquished to shelters by their owners is that a child will be entering the home. Don’t listen to all of the urban legends, cats and children can get along purrrfectly! However, teaching children to respect cats is a must for making the child-cat relationship work well.
Tip #1: Demonstrate respectful and responsible behavior towards cats for your children.
One way that children learn about how they are to behave is by watching other people around them. Children tend to repeat the behaviors of the adults and older children that they look up to the most. Young children may repeat behaviors exactly. You can see this in the way they play house, school, innocently use foul language, etc.
Respect for other people and animals is often learned by watching others too. Do the things you want the children in your life to repeat. Actions will speak much louder than words when you are teaching children. Be consistent – telling them that they have to pet the cat nicely will not go a long way if they watch you hit the cat when you are upset.
Tip #2: Supervise interactions between children and your cat.
Humans are not born with the ability to empathize with the thoughts and feelings of others. Rather, empathy is a part of psychological development that comes about over time. A complicating factor in the child-cat relationship is that not only is the child still developing the ability to understand others, but cats do not communicate in the same way humans do. A child (especially a younger child) may not understand that he/she is making a cat uncomfortable. This increases the likelihood of the cat getting hurt or child being bitten or scratched by the cat. Keeping an eye on the “conversation” between your child and your cat can prevent these misunderstandings and offer valuable teachable moments.
Tip #3: Teaching children requires repetition – repeat instructions over and over as necessary.
When a child is first learning a particular respectful behavior toward the cat, you will probably have to repeat the instruction every time you want the behavior performed. As an example, you may have to say “pet the cat nicely” and gently move the child’s hand over the cat hundreds of times before the child pets the cat correctly on his/her own. Being a broken record is all part of teaching children effectively.
When teaching children, it is very helpful to tell them to do what you want them to do rather than what you don’t want them to do. It may be your knee-jerk reaction to say “don’t hit the cat,” but that can be confusing. Rephrasing the instruction to “pet the cat nicely” can clarify it and result in the correct behavior.
Tip #4: Praise/reward children for help caring for your cat.
When a behavior is properly rewarded, the behavior will be repeated. Watch for your children to behave in respectful, responsible ways (proper petting, leaving the cat alone when he/she is anxious, feeding the cat, cleaning the litter box, etc) toward your cat and let them know that they have done the right thing! Sometimes it will just take a “good job” or a pat on the back to get your point across. Other times, it may take a reward like a new toy or extra television time. Knowing what motivates your children will be important in this. As a bonus tip – cats will repeat behaviors you properly reward them for as well!
Tip #5: Bring in the experts!
Taking your cat to the vet? Bring your children with you. Let them see that a part of being responsible for a cat is taking them to see the veterinarian. Ask the veterinarian and staff to explain what they are doing to your children. Let your children ask the veterinarian questions and get answers right from the expert. You might be surprised at how curious some children are about cats!
Do you remember how the adults in your life taught you (as a child) to respect cats?