Cats are the most prevalent family pet in the United States and it’s no wonder. They’re quiet and easy to care for—a perfect match for busy families with kids. Raising children with pets provides many benefits. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, pets can:

  • Teach empathy and compassion
  • Provide love, loyalty and affection
  • Foster self esteem
  • Promote physical activity
  • Teach responsibility
  • Provide valuable life lessons
  • Provide a connection to nature

What cat lover wouldn’t want to share these wonderful values with their children? Children are naturally drawn to cats, but it’s important to lay some ground rules for the safety of all concerned. An overzealous toddler could severely hurt a kitten. On the flip side, cat scratches and bites can pose serious health risks to your child. The key to promoting harmony between cats and kids is to monitor their interactions at all times and to teach children how to handle cats with kindness and respect.

Cats and Babies

There’s an old wives’ tale that a cat can become jealous and suck away a baby’s breath. This has no basis in fact. Most cats will steer clear of a new infant, whose sounds and smells seem altogether alien. Your cat is more likely to be upset by all the changes around the house than by the baby itself. New parents are often busy, tired, and much less focused on the family pet than they used to be. Here are some suggestions to make things go smoother when baby makes four:

  • It’s best to limit access to your baby’s room, if possible. Keep the door closed while your baby is sleeping. If you prefer leaving the baby’s door open, consider installing an inexpensive screen door.
  • Gradually introduce new baby furniture, bedding, and equipment before the baby arrives. While your newborn is still in the hospital, consider bringing home a nursery blanket or onesie with the baby’s scent. This will lessen the shock to your cat when the baby finally comes home.
  • Busy as you are, set aside a few minutes a day to groom and play with your cat, just like old times. This will reassure your feline that some things haven’t changed.
  • Encourage your cat to investigate as you hold or feed the baby. Gently reassure your cat and encourage her to sniff and investigate. Help your cat satisfy her curiosity while forming positive associations with the new family member.

Cats and Older Children

When baby goes mobile, the real fun begins….but not for your cat! Your toddler regards a cat as an animated stuffed toy just waiting to be squeezed, prodded and chased. Young children don’t have the ability to read a cat’s body language or reign in their own feelings and expressions. Toddlers operate at your cat’s eye level, move erratically, and emit unearthly giggles and squeals. Even the most confident cat can sense danger. And the gentlest feline may strike out when cornered or hurt. It can take a while to teach your child to interact appropriately with your cat, but it’s never too early to start.

  • To protect both your toddler and your cat, never leave them together unsupervised.
  • Teach your child the proper way to interact with a cat. Show her how to gently stroke her head and back, avoiding more sensitive areas such as tail, feet and belly. Stroke your toddler’s arm gently to show how good it feels. Explain that poking, squeezing or pulling fur, tails, and ears aren’t OK.
  • Quiet voices are a must as well.
  • Teach your child never to put her face near a pet. Scratches and bites of the head and neck are both most common and most dangerous.
  • Never touch the cat when she is eating or sleeping.
  • Do not chase the cat. If she runs away, it means she’s had enough.
  • Make sure your cat has many safe escape perches. The top of a dresser or cabinet, under a bed, or a gated-off room work well.
  • Watch body language. If either child or cat are getting overly worked up, it’s time to separate them.
  • Do not allow rough play. This only encourages the cat to use teeth and claws. Teach your child appropriate ways to play with your cat using safe cat toys.
  • Do not allow children to tease the cat. Teach the difference between teasing and playing.
  • Teach children to properly handle a cat. An adult cat should never be picked up by the scruff of the neck. Show children how to support the cat under the chest with one hand, while supporting the hindquarters with the other.
  • Model the proper behavior by treating your cat with affection and respect at all times.
  • Involve older children in caring for your cat. Older kids can replenish food and water bowls, gently brush the cat and even help keep litter pan clean. This is a great way for children to start learning responsibility for other living things. Always remember, though, that you can’t expect a child to be entirely responsible for your cat’s care. It’s your job to make sure that kitty’s needs are met every day!
  • Teach children to close the door! Many an indoor cat has gotten injured or lost when children inadvertently left the outside door open.