Children and New Cats
By Ilana Reisner, DVM
Whether through serendipity, regular visits to shelters or cat breeders, or simply the persistent child who attracts all stray cats within a 10-mile radius, parents may find themselves in a home with a new cat in one corner and an eager child in the other. If you find yourself in this situation, you may also wonder about the challenges that arise after the wonder of the new arrival has worn off. Here are some suggestions to help you maintain harmony between your child and the new feline member of the family.
First, get the whole family together and make a list of the cat's needs. Then use this list to assign responsibilities. Even allowing for individual interests and abilities, children should be at least eight to 10 years old before becoming primary caretakers for any pet. However, there are a number of responsibilities children can handle at a younger age, as long as they are overseen by parents.
Cats must be fed regularly, and their dishes washed. Water bowls should also be washed every day, and rinsed and refilled several times a day. The litter box (or, ideally, litter boxes)--no one's favorite chore--should be scooped daily and periodically washed and refilled. The floor surrounding the box will need sweeping or vacuuming every day. Cats also enjoy--and benefit from--regular grooming. This includes brushing and nail clipping. The coats of longhaired cats will require more attention than shorthaired cats. Any procedure that may potentially cause pain, such as combing through knotted hair or trimming nails, should be performed by an adult.
Next, consider your new pet's tolerance for physical contact. While some cats seem to enjoy being cuddled for long periods, others simply do not. A forcibly restrained cat will naturally push against the holder with her claws, scratching as she jumps away. Even young kittens may bite when stressed. Timid kittens or cats react to physical attention by hiding for long periods. To keep children safe and cats content, the family can discuss these issues--and their possible solutions--together. Nails can be trimmed and kept relatively dull. Most important, children may need to understand that cats have individual needs, and for some that includes not being picked up. Instead of carrying a kitten everywhere, children can be enlisted to play with her, perhaps even making new toys for the cat. Homemade toys can include stuffed animals or dangling fishing pole creations using feathers and bells. Give the cat a little box or bed in each room that's a "safe haven," and then make sure the children understand the cat must be left alone whenever she's in her safe haven.
Finally, no matter how much your kids promise and no matter how much they love the cat, it is ultimately your responsibility to care for any pet. Check every single day to make sure all the cat's needs have been met. You owe it to the cat. It's OK to leave the dirty dishes piled up in the sink for a week to make a point about responsibility. But it's unfair to the cat to leave her unfed, unbrushed, unloved, or her box unscooped, just to teach your kids a lesson. Caring for a pet helps children develop empathy for another living creature. With the help of parents, that relationship can lead to lifelong benefits for everyone.