By Arden Moore, a certified dog and cat behaviorist with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Arden is an author, radio host, and writer for Pets Best Pet Insurance, a pet insurance agency for dogs and cats.
When I turned six, my mom gave me my first cat, a Siamese kitten I named Corky. He was a big cat with an apple-shaped head and a mouth that rarely stopped meowing. He followed me like a dog, especially whenever I carried a fishing pole. We had a small lake in our backyard and Corky astutely made the connection between the fishing pole and his favorite meal – a fresh-caught blue gill fish.
Most of all, he trusted me. He would wade into the water with me for a swim and jump in the canoe for a paddle ride around the horseshoe-shaped lake. I will never forget Corky. He was my first pet, my first confidant, my pal.
Even though I begged my mom for a cat since I could remember, my mom waited until I entered kindergarten. She later told me that she wanted to make sure that I was “mature” enough to handle the responsibilities of having a cat.
When it comes to setting up a successful connection in a safe manner, age plays a role. In general, toddlers lack the ability to understand how their actions impact others, including family pets. Childhood psychologists note the following:
2 to 4 years old. Toddlers are in the ME-ME-ME phase of cognitive development. They also are still developing motor coordination and can be a little clumsy. They do not understand that yanking the cat’s tail or pinching his skin can startle and possibly, injure the cat. For these reasons, never leave a child unsupervised with even the friendliest of pets. Enlist your child as your “apprentice” with pet duties such as helping fill a food or water bowl and handing out a tasty treat for good pet behavior.
5 to 7 years old. At this age, children start to understand that others – including pets – have feelings. They learn that the family cat can experience pain. Under your supervision, your children should be able to handle the feeding and grooming of family pets. Show your children how to brush your cat’s coat and the proper way to hold your cat. You might even be able to guide your children on how to teach your cat a new trick, such as sitting on cue.
Adopting a family pet is a big deal and deserves a family meeting before heading to the shelter or rescue group center. Before you bring your new kitten or cat home, create a cat care schedule and post it on the refrigerator door or bulletin board. Everyone in the family should be assigned duties that can be checked out to ensure the cat’s needs are met. There should be daily check marks when someone cleans the litter box, provides fresh water, feeds the cat and grooms the cat.
Take the time to educate your kids about the best way to interact with not only the family cat but felines belonging to others. For example, let them know that cats do not like when people rush up to them and smother them in bear hugs. And, a newly adopted cat may feel a bit unsure at first, so your children can help him feel at home by being quiet and gentle. Advise your kids to sit and be still and to let the cat approach them. When he does, have your children hold out their hands to allow the cat to sniff and rub up against – this is the feline greeting.
Caution your children not to disturb a cat who is sleeping or using a litter box. He may feel startled or trapped and react by nipping or scratching them. Show them the right way to hold a cat by placing one hand or arm under the cat’s front legs and supporting the hind legs with the other hand or arm. Tell them to be respectful when a cat starts to wiggle and wants to get down.
Let your kids know that cats prefer being stroked from head to tail, not patted on the head. And what games cats like best, such as stalking a feather wand or toy mouse tossed down the hall.
Purposeful play is important in the development of children and cats. Play performed in a positive setting can build confidence in both, and teach both the benefits of true friendships. I know it did for me and Corky.
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