For many parents, the idea of kids and cats together is an absolute natural. For other parents though, it’s a scary thought that may get the family cat a one-way ticket to the local shelter.
Children and cats can be wonderful companions for each other. My kids have had the most loving, playful, endearing relationships with the cats in our lives. These relationships didn’t just happen by accident though. We prepared, educated and set up an environment that was both kid-safe and cat-safe.
As with any companion animal in the family, it’s crucial to use common sense, set up safeguards and create an environment that provides security for everyone. This isn’t just unique to cats – it applies to any companion animal you bring into the house where you also have children. The key is to prepare in advance and then continue to monitor and educate. To get you started, here are 10 things that every parent should know when it comes to cats and kids living together.
1. Don’t Get Rid of the Cat
Surprised? Don’t be, because many expectant parents panic about having a litter box in the house during pregnancy after being told by their doctors that if a pregnant woman touches cat feces it will harm the fetus. Sadly, parents are given inaccurate information and they end up getting rid of the cat in a total panic. Here’s the truth: there is a disease called toxoplasmosis, caused by the parasite toxoplasma gondii, that can result in birth abnormalities in the fetus. Just about all warm-blooded animals, including humans are susceptible to this common parasite but cats are the primary host carriers and shed the oocysts through their feces. The accurate information is that the oocysts don’t become infective right away after being shed so if the litter box is scooped twice a day, it will greatly reduce the risk. Pregnant women should have other family members do the litter box duties to be on the safe side. If you’re pregnant and must do litter box duty, wear disposable gloves, a face mask and wash your hands afterwards. The most important way to prevent infection is to practice good hygiene and common sense. Additionally, the risk of toxoplasmosis is actually greater by the improper handling of raw meat or using the same cutting board for vegetables/fruit that you use for cutting meat. The best way to prevent toxoplasmosis is to educate all family members about washing hands and using proper care in the kitchen and when cleaning the litter box. Make sure all fruits and vegetables are washed before eating, don’t allow your cat to eat raw meat and keep your cat indoors. Infection is probably more likely to occur with a cat who is allowed outdoors where he can ingest infected prey, dig in infected soil or come in contact with the feces of an infected cat. Speak to your veterinarian for more information on toxoplasmosis but please don’t get rid of your cat. Be informed and you’ll discover the risk is very small compared to the everyday risk you face by handling and/or eating raw or undercooked meat.
2. Prepare Your Cat in Advance
If you’re expecting a baby and you already have a cat, there are many things you can do to help prepare him in advance for this major life change. Use your “think like a cat” perspective and imagine how confusing it would be for a cat to suddenly find major changes taking place to his environment (in the form of nursery and baby furniture) and then all of a sudden there’s another person in the home and this person squeals loudly and smells unfamiliar.
Prepare your cat by starting the nursery early so you can do it gradually. Get your cat comfortable with sound and motion-generating baby equipment by having them out long before the baby arrives. You can also take time to do interactive play sessions in the rooms where objects are that may cause concern for your cat – such as a baby swing or exersaucer.
The mother-to-be can start wearing baby powder and lotion to help the cat become familiar with the scent.
Get on a schedule of playtime with your cat that you’ll be able to maintain once the baby arrives. Don’t make the mistake of going overboard on being attentive to your cat now. Cats thrive on a consistent schedule and familiar routine. Make sure the level of attention to show your cat now will be able to be maintained after the baby arrives.
If you know any neighbors or friends who have young babies, do some training sessions where a friend visits with her baby while you do some casual playtime with your cat and help him get familiar with the sight, sound and smell of babies. Doing it in short increments it will be much less overwhelming as opposed to surprising him later with a baby in the house 24/7.
3. Create a Cat-Friendly Environment
This really comes down to two aspects: the ability to escape and the ability to have access to kid-free zones. This will be crucial when the baby becomes mobile. Your cat needs to be able to climb up to an elevated area (typically, a cat tree or perch) that is out of reach of baby’s fingers. If your cat has a safe and comfortable perch where he can watch the household activity without having to be in the center of it, he’ll feel much less stressed. Cats prefer to escape rather than engage in conflict so if you make sure your cat has multiple avenues to get to elevated, safe areas, it will greatly decrease the chance of an unwanted encounter.
As for kid-free zones, these will be where your cat sleeps, eats and eliminates. Make sure that when your cat is either napping, chowing down or using the litter box, he doesn’t have to worry about a toddler suddenly appearing around the corner. The litter box should be in a room that is off limits to the young child. You can easily do this by installing a baby gate. You can either cute a hole in the gate just large enough for the cat to get through or you can raise the raise off the ground enough for kitty to sneak in underneath. Another option is to place a stool or box on the other side of the gate so the cat can jump the gate and land on the elevated surface on the other side.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that installing a covered litter box will keep the cat safe. All a covered box will accomplish is to potentially make your cat feel trapped and confined.
4. Adult Supervision
With babies and young children, make sure you’re always supervising when the child is in a position where she can come in contact with the cat. The crib, for example, should be a cat-free zone. Actually, when it comes to infants, nothing should be in the crib – not a blanket, stuffed toy or pillow. A cat may naturally find the crib a cozy place to nap, especially if he can curl up next to the sleeping infant, so make sure the nursery door remains closed during naptime or use a crib tent.
As the baby gets older and is enticed by the cat’s tail as he walks by, there’s a chance someone may get hurt. Supervision is always needed when babies or small children are in the same room with the family pet. Even the most tolerant animal may react defensively if he feels under attack or experiences sudden, unexpected pain from having a tail yanked, fistful of hair grabbed or an ear pulled.
5. Monitor Your Cat’s Health
I’m a mother of two children and so I completely understand that there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. I frequently feel as if I’m just playing catch-up. Parents’ plates are very full but it’s important to make sure that the cat’s health is monitored and maintained. It can be easy to forget to notice that kitty didn’t get his flea protection for the month and is now covered in fleas or that he didn’t get his nails trimmed and one or two nails are growing back around into the paw pad. Even if you have to write notes on the calendar to remind yourself to brush him, clip nails, or attend to other duties, make sure you continue to pay attention to his health needs and can act quickly if something unexpected comes up (such as a wound or illness).
Keep in mind that animals who are in pain are more likely to react defensively when touched and they also may display behavior changes. If your cat appears short-tempered around the child, cries out when touched or displays aggression, if could be that there is an undetected health issue going on. It could be an undetected abscess, a bad tooth, a urinary tract problem, a sore paw, you name it. If your normally sweet-tempered and tolerant cat displays a change in behavior, it’s time for a trip to the veterinary clinic for an exam.
6. Maintain Your Cat’s Normal Routine
Cats don’t like change so to avoid adding extra stress, keep on the normal feeding and playtime schedule. This isn’t the time to have your cat become an afterthought when it comes to meals or time spent with you. If you’re unable to do a play session with the cat, make sure another family member can. Introduce puzzle feeders to your cat as a way to incorporate extra playtime when you’re busy feeding or care for the baby. The cat is an important member of your family and he deserves to continue to receive the care, love and attention he’s used to.
7. Teach Children How to Pet and Interact With the Cat
It’s natural for children to be attracted to and want to grab onto the furry cat. A toddler needs to be taught how to pet with an open hand. Take the time to teach your children how animals should be handled, how to read body language (for children age appropriate) so they know when a cat is giving distance-increasing signals, and when/where cats should be left alone.
8. Teach Compassion and Empathy Toward Cats
To your child, the cat may look like the stuffed animal she plays with, so it’s important to teach about compassion and understanding how animals have feelings, experience pain, fear, confusion and of course, love. Dressing the cat up in doll clothes and stuffing him into a stroller may make for a funny picture but it can be very stressful and frightening for the cat and can lead to fear of being around your children. The sooner you teach your children about how to love and care for animals compassionately, the more likely they’ll develop a life-long love of these precious companions.
9. The Cat Isn’t a Child’s Responsibility
Many times a child begs the parents for a pet with the promise of being the one who will take full responsibility. Don’t allow a cat to suffer because the child falls short in her responsibility or is really too young to know what the animal needs. A cat shouldn’t be left with an empty water bowl because the child forgot to fill it. Children are also not able to monitor the cat’s health, changes in appetite, litter box habits or behavior. Give your children age-appropriate duties but be sure to monitor so the cat never suffers from a child’s forgetfulness or neglect.
10. Model the Behavior You Want to See in Your Child
If you want your children to be tender with the cat, then be sure you are displaying the very behavior yourself. Don’t fall in the trap of getting frustrated and lashing out at a cat who scratches the furniture or jumps on the counter and then finding yourself upset when your children react the same way. Let your children see how much you love and care for the companion animals in the family and you’ll be paving the way for them to do the same.
Need More Information?
For more specific information on preparing your cat for the arrival of a new baby or how to handle a behavior problem that is currently being displayed, refer to the book Think Like a Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennett.
Please note that Pam is unable to answer questions posted in the comment section. If you have a question about your cat’s behavior, you can find information in the articles on our website as well as in Pam’s books. If you have a question regarding your cat’s health, please contact your veterinarian.