From Infants to Toddlers to Teens: Tips and Advice to Enrich the Feline-Child Bond

Calvin feeding my cats some treats. Do they like him? Yes!

Not only am I blessed to be a grandmother, but I’m also blessed that my grandson, Calvin, lives nearby, so I’m able to have him visit our house on a regular basis. The first thing people typically say to me regarding his visits, is “I hope he likes cats, and how do they get along with him?” They say this, of course, because I have seven cats, most of which make themselves quite known when he visits. Thankfully, I can say not only does he like them; they like him, too, largely because of how both my grandson and my cats have been brought up.

The child-feline bond is one that can be extraordinary special, varying, and evolving based on numerous circumstances – the age of the child (from infant to teenager), the age of the cat (from kitten to senior), and how those interactions with one another are made. A strong, happy, and healthy relationship between the two is not difficult but it does require planning, perseverance, and patience for the best success. Since I’ve lived with cats through the course of my life and have raised two children with cats in the home over the course of their lives, as well as having written numerous articles about the subject – from national publications like Cat Fancy magazine, to this blog, and even in my award-winning book, Makin’ Biscuits – Weird Cat Habits and the Even Weirder Habits of the Humans Who Love Them, it’s a subject I’m well-versed in, and so I thought I’d share some tips and advice for those that might want to learn more on the topic.

Photo credit: Depositphotos.com. Graphic design by Deb Barnes.

NEWBORNS AND CATS

Calvin was adopted as a newborn and brought into a home in which an adult cat was already residing (quite peacefully) for years. In a case like this, the first step is to reduce the stress for the cat. Cats don’t like change – they rarely react well to it, so it’s important to consider their perspective. Imagine how you would feel if unexpectedly a tiny being seemingly appeared out of nowhere, crying, smelling funny, and who stole all the attention you’ve come to expect, away from you. You know the change is going to happen, but your cat doesn’t, which can greatly upset her equilibrium, often resulting in negative behavior, such as hiding, running away, peeing in inappropriate places, eating problems, and aggression issues.

The secret is to de-stress your cat BEFORE the baby arrives. Set up the nursery and encourage your cat to explore the room to familiarize herself with the furniture, baby clothes, toys, etc. Play videos of baby sounds to acclimate her to the new noises she’s about to hear and start wearing baby powder and baby lotion while engaging in activities with her (such as feeding and playtime) to create positive associations with baby odors. If there are surfaces you want to declare off-limits – like the changing table and/or crib – begin making that known to your cat as you get closer to baby’s arrival.

When you bring your baby home from the hospital, be respectful your cat may be nervous, jealous, or inquisitive. Greet her calmly and give her something to smell, like a used receiving blanket to familiarize herself with the baby. Don’t get all panicky and start yelling at her or shoo her away if she attempts to sniff the baby and try to maintain a normal schedule with her to let her know you haven’t forgotten her. Engage in interactive play sessions in the presence of the baby to help form a positive association – if you find you’re too busy, try something like a puzzle feeder that dispenses treats while you’re feeding the baby.

Two young siblings gently petting their cat. Photo credit: Cottonbro/Pexels

TODDLERS AND UP

As the baby grows, the relationship with the cat should grow, too. Naturally, caution should be exercised in the early years, as no one wants their child to inadvertently be scratched or bitten by a cat whose tail is being pulled or handled incorrectly or played with too roughly. Amy Shojai, IAABC Certified Behavior Consultant and author elaborates, “Children — especially those under 5 — don’t act like adults whom cats and kittens perceive as safe, and so the relationship needs to be taken slow and easy. Both the pet and the child need to learn how to be gentle with one another, and that will require patience and adult supervision.”

Have an adult nearby when cats and toddlers interact. Photo credit: Depositphotos.com

If altercations do happen, avoid using harsh corrections (both with the child and the cat), because it won’t help and will likely make things worse for their relationship. The simplest advice – children learn from the behaviors of their parents, older siblings, and other older/adult figures. If they see them treating the family cat kindly, with care, compassion, and respect, they will come to mimic that behavior, too. But just to be safe, provide a quick and easy escape route for your cat so she has somewhere to go if she’s not in the mood for toddler playtime, such as a tall cat tree/condo or shelf for her to perch on.

As the child gets older, assign certain responsibilities to them, such as keeping the pet’s dish full of freshwater, so they feel personally vested in the care of their pet. Or let them gently brush the kitty’s fur so they can enjoy an interactive activity that encourages bonding. The same with playing with interactive toys or doling out treats, something nearly every cat loves, and something that quickly and easily reinforces a positive relationship.

As children grow into teenagers, the bond between the child and the cat can be extraordinary. Photo credit: Depositphotos.com

There will be times, too, when the child is the established resident and a decision is made to bring a new cat or kitten into the household, whether by choice, or perhaps an unexpected stray that eases its way in as part of the family. These instances still require planning, perseverance, and patience for a successful relationship, and depending on the age of the child and their maturity level, it will also allow for invaluable learning experiences and shared responsibilities. For example, consider bringing the child to the rescue to help pick out the new pet, which will teach them the joys of saving a precious life.

They can also participate in naming the new pet and helping with choosing toys, bedding, and food dishes. If the child is not old enough for those tasks and there is concern about introducing a live animal into the house, consider buying a plush cat toy beforehand and begin to teach the child how to hold the cat, how to gently touch it, and things of that nature. You could also watch videos featuring cats and read books with pictures to help familiarize them with the new pet.

Above and beyond preparing the child for the new cat, there are preparations you should make for the cat, too, to ease her into her new home:

1. Kitty is apt to be scared the first few days and should be confined to a small area in the home that can be shut off, such as a spare bedroom. Have it pre-stocked with a litterbox, litter, and scooper; properly formulated food; glass or lead-free ceramic bowls for food and water; kitten/cat appropriate toys (avoid things with small buttons, bells, strings, ribbons, and yarns that can be dangerous if chewed and swallowed); bedding; a comb or brush; and a scratching post.

2. Bring your cat or kitten to the vet shortly after her arrival for a general checkup and an update on her vaccines and shots. Kittens can be spayed or neutered as early as eight weeks of age, so an appointment should be scheduled if she has not already been altered.

3. If you’re getting a kitten, she’ll be curious, so you’ll need to kitten-proof your home to keep her safe (you’ll notice that kittens and toddlers are strikingly similar when it comes to baby-proofing a home). Hanging drapes or blind cords need to be securely anchored to keep her from getting tangled or choked. Put child-proof electric plug protectors in all unused outlets and cover or wrap exposed wires and electrical cords to prevent chewing. Kittens can jump, too, so remove breakable items from shelves, mantels, and tables and keep small items that could be swallowed out of sight such as rubber bands, dental floss, jewelry, hair ties, paper clips, and more. Remove furniture with slats to prevent her from getting her head caught and be careful when using a recliner — make sure you know where she is before sitting down or getting up because she can be injured or killed by the reclining mechanism.

4. Remove poisonous plants (refer to petpoisonhelpline.com for a full list of potentially toxic flora) and keep house cleaning products, insecticides, etc., out of reach or in child-proof cabinets. Make sure toilet lids are kept down and keep washer and dryer doors shut so she does not try to crawl in looking for a spot to nap.

5. Whether a cat or kitten, give her plenty of time to adjust, slowly introducing her to her new home one room at a time by letting her walk around to explore while you quietly watch. Be patient and don’t give her free rein in the house until you feel she is comfortable with her surroundings. If you need to leave her alone for work or other situations, secure her in her safe room with her litter, toys, and food. When she is fully ready to come out, be sure to provide her with lots of scratching posts, cat mats, cat condos, cat trees, and more so she has plenty of places to climb, sleep, jump, and play on.

Photo credit: Artem Malushenko/Pexels

With all these ingredients, not only should your cat or kitten thrive, but the relationship they share with your child (or children) should thrive, too, leading to a lasting, loving bond for years to come.

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  1. meowmeowmans says:

    This is so great, Deb! It should be required reading for people with cats who are expecting a new human baby. More than a few cats have ended up at PAWS and other shelters over the years because the planning, patience, and perseverance you so beautifully wrote about were not practiced or employed.

  2. jmuhj says:

    Being born into a family”with cat” I know quite a lot about the subject. The MOST important thing is to train the child to respect and protect the cat, to always be gentle with the cat, and to give the cat the space s/he needs. It is never the cat’s fault, and always the adults’ fault, when things happen! Adults MUST educate kids. And they MUST be observant and protective of the cat. As a small child, I once pulled my beloved cat’s tail out of ignorance. Fortunately my mom saw and she immediately came and pulled my hair, hard enough so that it hurt. When I cried out, she said, “See? That’s how it feels to him when you pull his tail!”
    I never did that again.

  3. Pawsome post and great advice, Deb, a must-read for every cat owner ! We agree with jmuhj too when he/she saiy : ” The MOST important thing is to train the child to respect and protect the cat, to always be gentle with the cat, and to give the cat the space s/he needs.”. Purrs

  4. Catscue says:

    Wonderful post today! I can’t remember a time without a cat, not surprising I guess – born and raised to love cats, what a great way to grow up – I highly recommend it.

  5. Great post. Starting kids with pets young is best so they learn to respect them and take care of them.

  6. Mary McNeil says:

    What a great post ! A great reminder to pet parents and human parents alike of how to learn mutuals respect for both sides !

  7. Brian Frum says:

    We really love seeing a home where all of the residents are happy with each other!

  8. Leah says:

    Great informative post for anyone who is introducing a child to a cat or cats!