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. 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. The key is to prepare in advance and then continue to monitor and educate. To get you started, here are four things that every parent should know when it comes to cats and kids living together.
1. 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. When your cat is either napping, chowing down, or using the litter box, he shouldn’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 or pet door. Choose a gate that has a small cat opening in the center. You can find them online or at your local pet supply store. 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.
2. Always have adult supervision. With babies and young children, always supervise when the child is in a position where they can come in contact with the cat. The crib, for example, should be a cat-free zone. A cat may naturally find the crib a cozy place to nap, especially if kitty can curl up next to the sleeping infant. The nursery door should remain closed during nap time. 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, a fistful of hair grabbed, or an ear pulled.
3. Maintain your cat’s normal routine as much as possible. Cats don’t like change; they take comfort in predictability and routine, so to avoid adding stress, keep 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, maybe another family member can help out. Introduce puzzle feeders to your cat as a way to incorporate extra playtime when you’re busy feeding or caring for the baby. The cat is an important member of your family and deserves to continue to receive the care, love, and attention he has come to expect.
4. 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 so they know when a cat is giving distance-increasing signals, and when/where a cat should be left alone. It’s also important to teach empathy toward cats. To your children, the cat may look like the stuffed animal to play 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 or costumes 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 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.
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