Growing Up Together: Cats and Toddlers

When a baby begins to move around, everything changes. Toddlers are grabby, loud, and move strangely. Your cat, who was perfectly content with a baby, may be wondering what alien creature in the house now. Take a few steps to keep the friendship on the right path now and avoid problems later.

This is part 3 of a series on cats and kids. Part 1 is about cats and pregnancy and part 2 covers bringing home a new baby. Or jump to Part 4 which covers managing cats and kids

Eyes on Them

Child Poking Cat

Supervision between pets and children is a priority to keep them safe and prevent problems. Here supervision means an adult who is ready to intervene between cat and toddler as needed. A toddler can easily frighten a cat and cause a defensive reaction. And a cat can just as easily get overly curious or playful and frighten or injure a toddler. Problems are much easier to prevent than to resolve.  

Be Realistic

As your baby becomes a little person running around, you may be excited to show them how to love your cat. Be realistic about how your child can safely interact as they grow up. Most toddlers can’t help but grab onto things and your cat is unlikely to appreciate this. Try teaching “one finger” petting as a way to combat this.

Toddlers and very young children do best interacting with a cat that is on the ground. Most cats prefer to be able to approach and move away on their own, without being held. If you want to hold your cat for a child to pet, pay close attention to their body language and let them go if you see signs they are getting uncomfortable.

Give your cat frequent breaks from being around your toddler. Even the most tolerant cat may be less comfortable around small children. Learn your cat’s warning signs and be ready to intervene. In particular, watch for dilated (round) pupils, a swishing or flicking tail, and ears to move backward or sideways.

Safe Zones

Many potential issues between cats and toddlers can be minimized just by giving the cat space to escape. Large cat trees or raised perches give your cat a place to get off the ground and watch from a safe place. A baby gate will do double-duty to keep your new walker out of certain areas while allowing your cat to use those spaces as a safe zone. If your cat isn’t able to jump over a baby gate, you can get a gate with a pet door in it or cut one yourself.

Child Cornering Cat
Note this cat's dilated pupils.

Put food, water, and litter boxes behind gates or on raised surfaces to let your cat use them without being bothered. Leave multiple exit paths available so your cat never feels cornered.

It’s All Good

Your cat may be nervous around your toddler now that they are moving around. They may be even more wary if they’ve been grabbed, poked, or startled in the past. Along with using management and safe zones to prevent scary or uncomfortable interactions, you can teach your cat that your toddler is nice to be around. Use classical conditioning to make the connection between being around your child and special treats or toys. You can do this casually by feeding or playing with your cat in the same room as your toddler. Or you can play “games” where the toddler “appears” (from another room for example) and you give your cat treats. When the child disappears again, the treats stop.

Importantly, the cat needs to be far enough away that they are relaxed and will eat or play. Don’t use food or play to lure your cat close to your toddler. Instead your cat should be able to choose how close they want to be and be rewarded just for seeing the child.

Having Too Much Fun

A toddler’s odd movements, squeals, and screeches can be a bit like prey for some cats. Whether this triggers playful pouncing, swatting, and nipping or more intense hunting behavior, it can be scary for both child and parent. 

Cat Playing with String

Make sure your cat has plenty of appropriate outlets for this behavior. Have regular interactive play sessions and feed using food puzzles to make full use of your cat’s mind and body. Keep appropriate toys ready to distract and engage your cat if they start getting excited.

Keep an eye on your cat’s body language. Watch for staring, ears pricked forward, and a swishing or flicking tail that might indicate they are getting too excited and focused. Interrupt them with a toy or treat given on their perch or bed. Regularly reward them with play, treats, or attention on that spot to encourage them to hang out there. Especially reward when they are relaxed. If your cat’s need for play is met in other ways and they are rewarded for relaxing on their perch, they are less likely to start an inappropriate game with your toddler.

For cats that get more intense and can’t relax when a toddler gets excited, it is best if they have a seperate place to go hang out. By removing your cat from the situation, you aren’t punishing them but are keeping everyone safe and letting your cat decompress. There are probably times of day that it is easier or harder for your cat to be calm so pay attention to this and what other triggers might exist to better manage the situation.

As your little baby becomes a little person, new challenges appear but also exciting new moments. Continue on to Part 4 of the series for tips on a cat-friendly household as children get older. 

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