It is natural for young children to be excited when meeting a new pet for the first time. This can sometimes combine with fear when the cat makes contact with them. These two reactions, unfortunately, can frighten the cat and leave it with a negative impression of children that can take a long time to shake off.
Kids love cats, but the feeling needs to be a mutual one
This is how you can make sure the meeting of children and cat is a positive experience for everyone:
- Make sure your child is calm and remind them not to shout, rush forward or flap their arms around when they meet the cat.
- If you have more than one child then it is best to introduce them one at a time. Otherwise they are likely to squabble over who gets to see/stroke/hold the cat first.
- Try to coax the cat to you, rather than stalking it around the room. Sit down with your child on the floor, and be patient as the cat sizes up the situation.
- Demonstrate to your child how to gently stroke a cat, moving your hand from its shoulders to the base of its tail. Point out how important it is to be gentle and not to stroke too hard, or to pat the cat.
- Tell your child that cats like to rub themselves against legs, or any other bit that presents itself. Then, when it happens, the kids won’t shriek/kick/run away!
- Establish at the outset that a cat’s tail is not for pulling!
Teaching Children How to Hold a Cat
Once the kids are happy with the way all this works, and have stroked the cat without either cat or child freaking out, it’s time to go for the cat cuddle...
- Demonstrate first by holding the cat yourself, supporting its body with both arms when you pick it up.
- Emphasise that this is a cat cuddle and not a bear hug!
- Tell the kids to watch the cat’s body language. When felines are feeling friendly, you’ll know it – they’ll narrow their eyes, meow at you, jump up onto a chair to be closer, or rub themselves on your legs. If they don’t want to be picked up, they’ll try to wriggle free or, worse still, let their claws do the talking. You can’t force a cuddle onto a cat, and must leave well alone if she’s not in the mood.
- Ask children to sit on the floor when holding a cat for the first time. This will help both cat and human to feel more secure, and cause less of a panic if the cat tries to wriggle free. It also stops your child running around with the cat!
- If your children are nervous or scared, don’t rush them into holding the cat. Remember: your cat is in no hurry to meet and greet anyone in the early days (that’s just how cats are), so take things slowly.
A tabby cat sharing a cuddle with an enthusiastic young friend
Cats and Babies
Cats tend to ignore babies. This is just how you want it, and you can help things along by getting the cat used to the new sounds and scents associated with the new arrival.
- Let your cat sniff any toys or baby equipment, before the baby arrives
- Find a recording of a crying baby - you can look online - and play it so that the cat isn’t too alarmed when the real thing happens
- Make the nursery off-limits to cats.
- Once the baby is here, never leave it alone with the cat. Nightmare stories of cats smothering babies by curling up on them - the origin of the folklore that says they “steal a baby’s breath” - are seldom true, but it’s always best to play safe.
- Once your baby reaches toddlerdom, you still need to keep baby and cat away from each other. Unless you have a super-docile breed, your pet will not take very kindly to being grabbed, poked and slapped by tiny hands.
- Always cover sand pits or boxes when a child is not playing there, to prevent a cat being tempted to view it as an exotic toilet!
Watch out for any sneezing or wheezing from your baby - these could be signs of an allergic response to the cat. This is a real problem, as avoidance is the only remedy, and you might have to banish your pet from places where your toddler goes.
The time to act on this issue is before you become pregnant, and during the pregnancy. Speak to a nutritionist about diets that minimise the risk of allergies. There is evidence, for example, that a regular intake of omega-3 fatty acids - the main source being fish - can help.