Happy Together: Cats and Kids

As kids grow up, their bond with the family cat can develop a wonderful relationship. With a little bit of thought, cats and kids can live even more happily together.

(This is the fourth installment in the “Cats and Kids” series. Click for Part 1 – Pregnancy, Part 2 – Babies, and Part 3 – Toddlers.)

Setting Rules and Expectations

Even young children can learn to respect a cat’s boundaries and be fair to them. Teach your child how to be kind and gentle to your cat. Kids should never be allowed to chase cats (unless you know for sure that your cat enjoys this game). Make rules giving your cat “safe spaces” where they aren’t to be bothered. This should include to litter box, the food bowl, and at least one raised perch. By allowing your cat to retreat to an area where they won’t be touched, you let them have the choice to interact. Having choice decreases stress and behavior problems.

Some cats are comfortable being picked up and carried, while others aren’t. If your cat is very relaxed when held, you can teach your child to pick them up gently and hold them securely. Cats may react differently to being roughly picked up by a child. And many cats simply are happier when children interact with them on the ground. Your child should learn to immediately let go of a struggling cat to prevent them from escalating to aggression.

Many children (and adults) want to include their cat in play time by dressing them in clothes. Again, some cats can handle this while some aren’t that tolerant. Supervision during play time is key to making sure that your cat is comfortable with what is happening. Clothing made for pets generally has velcro closures that make it safer to put on and off. Doll clothing can get caught around your cat’s neck and be difficult to remove, especially if your cat becomes fearful.

Cat in Christmas Costume
I'm not sure I like this game...

Above all, when interacting with a cat, both children and adults need to respect the cat. If your cat starts showing signs of being uncomfortable with an activity, let the cat take a break or help your child pick a new game. Cats pushed past their limits may become aggressive. Children who learn to listen to their cat are learning kindness for life.

Sharing Responsibility

Child Holding Cat

Children can help care for the family cat in many fun ways. While it’s easy for a child to place a scoop of food in a bowl, kids can also get involved in making feeding more interesting. Cats benefit from having to work for their food and kids can help by filling food toys or making their own. For a simple game, kids can hide pieces of dry food or treats around a room for their cat to “hunt”. 

If your cat isn’t used to hunting, you can create a game for both kids and cats. Start by sprinkling food behind furniture and on perches. Ask your child to search the room and call your cat over to get the food as they find it. With a little practice, your cat will be searching on their own and your child can take over hiding the food.

Show your child how to use a wand toy to play with the cat. Explain how to move the toy like a mouse or a bird. Using the toy, kids can have fun with your cat while also meeting one of your cat’s important needs.  

Taking care of a cat can teach responsibility in children but an adult should always be the primary caregiver. Make sure you supervise how much food your cat is getting and monitor appetite and elimination patterns to watch for important warning signs of illness.

The More, The Merrier

In many homes, kids growing up means friends coming over and more activity and noise. Supervise your child’s friends around your cat to ensure they are able to be gentle and follow your rules. Give your cat lots of opportunities to get away and take breaks. If the kids want to play with the cat, show them how to play with toys or give treats.

In a previous post on cats and toddlers, I discussed managing an excitable cat who wants to pounce on moving targets. I recommend reviewing this section even if your children are older. The added energy of kids in your home may cause your cat to lose some of their self control. Provide appropriate outlets for this behavior and intervene to remove the cat as needed.

If your cat is fearful or has had behavior challenges related to stress or change in the past, they likely won’t enjoy hanging out with a group of your child’s friends. Put them in their own room with food, water, toys, and a litter box and close the door. Your cat will appreciate having their own quiet space and you don’t have to worry about them.

Doorway Safety

As children get older, open doors become more of a safety concern for indoor cats. Rules about keeping doors closed or watching the cat are bound to be forgotten at some point. If your cat tends to try to sneak through doors, you’ll need to be proactive. Some households may find that a gate or exercise pen is useful in creating a buffer zone around exterior doors.

Cat Peeking Through Open Door

For added safety, the whole family can help teach your cat to “come” when called. Start in a circle and call your cat back and forth between different family members, rewarding with treats. Slowly make the circle bigger and then start asking for “come” in other rooms of the house. Practice from other rooms. As one family member goes to the door to leave, call your cat away from the door and to you. Remember to keep rewarding to keep the behavior strong. You can also teach your cat to back away from a door by tossing treats behind them. You’ll have to practice a lot, and with all family members, to teach your cat to stop rushing the door.

If your cat is frequently trying to sneak outside, make sure you are providing for all of their needs indoors. Regular interactive play sessions, solo toys, and other enrichment opportunities all make the indoor space more inviting and lead to a more relaxed cat.

Each phase of your child’s life brings new excitement and challenge. Watching them grow to love a cat is a special moment. You are setting both child and cat on a path to their happily ever after.

If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.