Pets and Kids – What Can They Handle

If you are considering getting a cat as a pet for your children, the first thing you should think about is the day-to-day care that will be required. Help show your child what it’s like to own an animal by making a trip to the local library, or buying a book about how to look after cats.

Making your child a part of this new adventure will help her to understand what your new addition to the family needs before you bring her home. Of course pets aren’t all work and no play, and bringing a cat into your family can offer a lot of benefits to children, including reducing stress and teaching responsibility … not to mention the hours they’ll spend playing games together.

After you’ve explained the basics of what your new cat will need, there are a few other important things to teach your child when it comes to her pet:

  1. Cats need space.

Just like children sometimes need time outs, cats can, on occasion, feel the same way. That’s why it’s important to teach your children to read your cat’s body language and to respect when they may need time alone. Some easy signs to watch out for are:

  1. When a cat wags its tail, that usually means something has irritated him, so this is a good time for your children to give the cat some space.
  2. If their hair stands up on end and they start hissing, this is a definite sign that your cat feels threatened. In this situation your kids must leave the cat alone and back away. Give them about 30 mins to cool down and then quietly come back into the room, making slow movements and sit down at their level and offer to pet and fuss them again.
  3. Most cats don’t want to be fussed with when they’re hungry or when it’s time to eat, so it’s a good idea to teach your kids to leave the cat alone while he’s doing these things.
  4. Sometimes biting is a way for cats to play – so teach your children to keep their hands away from the cats mouth and ideally wear long sleeve tops and trousers until they get used to playing nicely together.  
  1. Sometimes cats don’t want to play.

Cats can be solitary creatures, so however much your children may want to play a game, your cat might not be in the mood. Here are some useful tips to create happy play times:

  1. Never force your cat to play a game. If she seems like she’s not in the mood, it’s best to just leave her alone and try again at a different time.
  2. Try out different toys to keep your cat interested.
  3. Always use toys which are suitable and appropriate there are homemade toys like a ping-pong ball, a piece of string with newspaper strips tied to the end which can provide plenty of fun. Alternatively you can pop down to your local pet store and ask for some advice on suitable toys for your kitten or cat.
  4. Sleeping cats should always be left alone – no one enjoys being woken up from a wonderful nap!
  5. Try to schedule regular playtimes and supervise them with your children and cat until they can be trusted to play responsibly together.

 

  1. Cats need to be handled with care.

Whether you’ve brought a new kitten home or adopted an older cat, your children must be taught how to handle their new friend with care. Here are a few tips on the best ways to pick up a cat:

  1. Cats should never be picked up by the scruff of the neck. This can harm your cat and is something only mother cats should do with their kittens. Otherwise you may accidentally drop them as the cat wriggles from this uncomfortable position.
  2. When your child picks a cat up, it’s best if they scoop the cat in their arms and support one hand under their chest and the other under their hind legs.

Once you’ve got the basics in place you will find that your cats and children can form a wonderful bond together. Having cats is a great way for children to learn responsibility, how to care for something else and will also provide hours of fun, love and entertainment as your cat becomes a firm member of the family.

Are Mischievous Cats Just Bored?

This scenario may be all too familiar: An unsuspecting cat owner comes home from work to find that his or her once well-behaved feline has tipped over a houseplant, batted everything off the home office desk and pulled a foot-long thread from the living room curtains. What’s the scoop? Simply put, kitty could be bored.

Understanding Cat Boredom
To understand the behavior of a cat, consider what goes on in zoos. Several decades ago, zoo animals were often just given food and water and left to sit in their cages. Now, zookeepers devise numerous enrichment activities, encouraging the animals to hunt for food and even playing games with them.

“Today’s cats are like yesterday’s zoo animals -- they stay home without much to do and rarely use their instincts to hunt, explore, play and interact,” says Steve Duno, a pet behaviorist in Seattle and author of Be the Cat (Sterling 2008). “As a result, they get a little nutty.”

While bored cats can exhibit destructive and antisocial behaviors, they might also demonstrate less obvious symptoms, including depression, excessive grooming, skin disorders, hypervocalization, house-training accidents, overeating and excessive sleeping. 

Inspiration From Zoos
So what’s the solution? “Open your own zoo, so to speak, by offering your cat behavioral and environmental enrichments,” Duno says. However, instead of overwhelming your cat with these enrichments, introduce a few at a time.

In addition, don’t adopt a kitten to entertain your cat, especially if your cat is older and not used to other animals. “You’ll only create more problems,” says Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, author of Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Cats and Dogs (Cattledog Publishing 2009).

Cures for Kitty Doldrums
If your own cat seems stuck in a dreary rut, and any underlying health problems have been ruled out by your veterinarian, our experts advise the following:

Make your pet work for its food By nature, cats are hunters, which is why constantly putting their food in bowls or free-feeding may cause boredom. Instead, make it a game for them to find food. Dr. Yin recommends cutting 2-inch-high openings in a shoe box, making sure the openings go to the bottom of the box. Place your cat’s dry food under the box and let your furry pal bat it out. You can also use balls that hold food.

Train your cat “If you’re not free-feeding, cats are easy to train, and the training provides stimulation,” says Dr. Yin. She likes to train cats to “sit” and “come” for when they’re hungry enough to eat treats. To train your cat to sit, hold a treat away from your pet and wait until your cat sits. Then put the treat right up to your cat’s mouth and give it to your pet. If that doesn’t work, push the treat from your cat’s nose to right above its head, which should prompt a seated position. If your cat remains seated, reward with another treat. Now walk away while saying “come.” Your cat should follow you. Repeat the instructions for sitting to return your cat to a seated position. Be sure to reward with treats when warranted. Later, you can use these commands to distract your pet whenever it misbehaves.

Put kitty on the trail If possible, hide food -- or other smell-good items -- around the house to stimulate your cat’s olfactory sense and to excite its hunting drive. For instance, leave scent trails throughout the house. Drop a little lavender oil or cinnamon in various places, leading your cat to a treat. You can also hide catnip or place an evergreen bough out of reach of your cat.

Provide visual stimulation If possible, hang bird feeders near windows or a mobile from the ceiling -- out of paw reach -- for your cat to view. An aquarium or cat-themed DVDs are good for entertainment and companionship. You can also try rearranging the furniture to spark kitty investigations.

Boost the fun factor Set up scratching posts and leave out interactive toys. One caveat? “Rotate the toys so your cat doesn’t get bored seeing the same one,” Duno says.

Your cat should respond almost immediately to these enrichment activities. Not only will you notice that it is more interested in its environment, but you should also start to see behavioral improvements. Duno concludes, “Now that you’ve followed the lead of today’s zookeepers and provided a more stimulating environment for your cat, you’ll probably even notice that your cat is happier and more content with life.”

Cats Sacrifice Efficiency for Smooth Moves

Cori Elson, like many cat owners, loves observing her cat, Rita. “She walks around like she’s on a stealth mission, moving so elegantly,” says Elson.

It turns out that scientists also enjoy cat gazing. Recently, researchers from Duke University’s evolutionary anthropology program observed and measured the gaits of six felines. They determined that cats evolved to move differently than the other mammals we most commonly observe, namely humans and dogs.

"It is usually assumed that efficiency is what matters in evolution," says Daniel Schmitt, Ph.D., a Duke associate professor of evolutionary anthropology. "We've found that's too simple a way of looking at evolution, because there are some animals that need to operate at high-energy cost and low efficiency."

Below, Dr. Schmitt explains how these findings apply to your cat.

Survival of the Fittest
Animals that need to travel long distances in order to find safety or food move in energy-saving ways. Humans, dogs, large birds and horses use gravity to their advantage when they walk and run. "Our centers of mass rise and fall when we walk,” explains Dr. Schmitt. “When we do that, humans and other animals minimize energetic costs. It's an evolutionary miracle in my view.”

The movement of our furry feline friends is a different sort of miracle. Dr. Schmitt and his team of researchers found that when cats slink close to the ground, they walk in a way that the movements of their front and back ends cancel each other out -- a good core workout to be sure but not the way to use gravity to one’s advantage or to conserve energy.

"The total movement of their bodies is even, and they flow along," describes Dr. Schmitt. "If they're creeping, they put each foot down in an even fashion. We think it has to do with stability and caution.”

It also has to do with putting food on the metaphorical table. "Cats need to creep up on their prey,” says Dr. Schmitt. “Most scientists think that energetic efficiency is the currency of natural selection. But here we've shown that some animals make compromises when they have to choose between competing demands."

What This Means for Your Cat
Your feline shares the same basic movements with wild cats, even though it may just stalk a toy mouse instead of big game. The stealthy, energy-inefficient way it moves when on the prowl causes it to expend many calories. That, in turn, means it needs to consume many calories.

The current obesity problem among domestic cats may, in part, result from the fact that such house kitties no longer inhabit the environment in which they evolved -- an environment of daily, high-intensity workouts. A two-cat household -- or one with enough cat trees and toys to keep your furry friend in motion for part of its day -- can help keep your pet in fine shape.

Walk This Way
Because a cat’s gait is theoretically important to its survival, an impaired gait is always a sign of a problem. If you notice Fluffy looking unsteady or walking without his usual fluidity, make an appointment with your veterinarian. All of these symptoms are typical signs of middle-ear disorders, like ear infections or punctured eardrums.

As for Rita, she seems to take her gracefulness for granted. “Sometimes when I’m watching her, I swear she looks at me like I’m crazy,” Elson says. “I guess my walk isn’t as fascinating to her -- unless I’m moving toward her with treats!”

Kitten Kindergarten

When it comes to pet training, dogs traditionally have had a paw up on their feline counterparts. Programs to increase a cat's socialization and training aren't considered by most pet owners and didn't exist until recently. But school is becoming the "in" thing for kittens, with the advent of kitten kindergarten.

Kitten kindergarten is the brainchild of Australian veterinary behaviorist Kersti Seksel, who opened her own "Kitty Kindy" under a decade ago for young cats aged 7 to 14 weeks. The concept has now appeared in the U.S., where in many communities from coast to coast courses are spread out over a few weeks. These courses allow kittens to play and interact with owners and other cats. Owners also learn to care for their kittens, and behavior problems are nipped in the bud.

"People have had misconceptions about cats: that they're loners and that they're not sociable. But they are wrong," says Pam Johnson-Bennett, a certified animal behavior consultant and author of books on feline care, including Psycho Kitty (TenSpeed Press 2007). "It's laying a foundation for great socialization and hopefully the prevention of future behavior problems."

What Is It?
Kitten kindergartens are being offered by a variety of veterinarians, humane societies, behaviorists and other specialists. In the U.S., the programs tend to be targeted at kittens between 8 and 15 weeks old. The young felines generally must be up-to-date on shots and have a health form signed by a veterinarian saying they are in good health and have tested negative for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV).

Steve Dale, a cat behavior consultant in the Chicago area who teaches kitten classes around the country, says that the goals of any kitten kindergarten should include getting a cat accustomed to a pet carrier, helping to socialize a cat and teaching owners how to handle, feed and play with their pets. Dale, who developed his curriculum based on Dr. Seksel's teachings and feline behavior guidelines from the American Association of Feline Practitioners, says these goals are achieved through a variety of games, drills and introductions to other cats, people and even dogs. Pet owners should also get opportunities to ask questions and learn some of the basics about having a cat at home -- Litter Box 101, discouraging scratching on furniture, diet information and grooming, among other issues.

What's the Benefit for Your Cat?
Cats, like other animals, go through an early development stage when they trust that everything in their environment is safe, including people, other pets and surroundings. For kittens, this stage generally comes between about 8 and 15 weeks of age. "Cats have this very narrow window where physiologically they are like putty, and you can teach them all sorts of things," Dale says. This is a great time for bonding with a family and becoming comfortable in a new home. But after that stage, as cats begin to explore, they can become more timid and cautious of new people, places and things.

"None of us want to find our cat ducked under the bed when we have to take her to the clinic," says Arden Moore, editor of Catnip, the monthly magazine for cat owners from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. "With something like kitty kindergarten, you're starting off on the right paw, if you will. You're showing your cat that the carrier is a safe, welcoming place. The car is no big deal. And the veterinarian's office is no big deal. You're getting them used to being handled by different people and safely introduced to new environments."

Socialization to new places, people, pets and situations while a kitten is in that impressionable stage will create positive associations for the cat. If a kitten gets used to being handled by pet owners and even strangers, then it may be more receptive and relaxed at veterinary exams or routine events like getting their nails cut and teeth brushed.

What's in It for You?
Kitty kindergarten, while less focused on training tricks, helps to develop positive behaviors so that cat and owner may cohabitate in the most positive environment.

"It's creating a good relationship from the beginning between the kitten and the owner," Johnson-Bennett says. "Because it's a relationship, you need to know what the cat needs and how to provide it. Having your cat be more sociable and comfortable around people and other pets means they are less likely to hide when the doorbell rings, they're more comfortable being held and it's easier to introduce another pet into the household."

Kitten kindergarten works on a variety of levels. Brand-new cat owners can learn the basics of feeding, litter box maintenance, grooming and even playing with their pet. For more experienced pet owners, the classes can aid in socializing their pet so they have fewer adjustment issues later on when they want to bring home a dog or visit the veterinarian.

Where to Find Kitten Kindergartens
Kitten kindergartens have been opening in communities around the country. Here are some resources to find one that is right for you:

  • Check with your veterinarian Many veterinarians are taking the initiative to start these classes. "It's a great way to put a cat in a fun environment when they visit the vet, not just for the dreaded vaccinations," Moore says.
  • Talk to the local humane society These organizations also see kitten kindergartens as a positive way to reduce the number of cats that are abandoned or put up for re-adoption due to behavior problems. "Shelters really love it," Moore says. "It's helping kittens get socialized and adopted."
  • Online resources Pet experts have set up Web sites with information about kitten kindergartens. Steve Dale's Pet World Web site contains a variety of resources, as does the Web site of veterinary behaviorist Sophia Yin, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Her site is called AskDrYin.
  • American Association for Feline Practitioners The AAFP has developed feline behavior guidelines that might be helpful in choosing your kitten kindergarten. The group has a Web site called CatVets.

Kitten kindergartens are a sign of change in our understanding of what cats need and what type of relationship you can have with your cat. Kitten kindergartens, Dale says, help owners to provide both mental and physical stimulation for their feline friends. Kitty can then graduate to its next stage of life, feeling healthy, prepared and confident.

Bringing Home Baby: Tips for Introducing Your Cat

You have this sweet, cuddly bundle of joy. Just looking at him brings a smile to your face. He’s so darn cute that you even forget about the early morning feedings, bathroom mishaps and random crying jags in the middle of the night. 

Then, you decide to have a baby.

So, how do you make sure your newest family member and your beloved cat get along? We have tips to help make the introductions pleasant and safe for both parties.

  1. Time. When you bring home a new baby, you will have much less time for your cat. So, in the months prior to your baby being born, as harsh as it may sound, try spending less time with your cat to get him accustomed to this inevitable change. If your cat is particularly attached to you, try having your significant other form a similar bond with the cat so she won’t feel abandoned when the baby arrives. Similarly, if mom used to be the one to do certain things -- like cut his nails, brush his fur or cuddle with him at night -- these duties should be handed off before the baby comes, as well.
  1. Space. Since your cat won’t have complete access to your lap anymore, teach your cat to sit on the floor next to you, or wait to be invited into your lap, as opposed to jumping up on his own volition.
  1. Smells and Sounds. Desensitize your cat to the new sounds and smells that accompany a baby by putting baby oil, powder or whatever products you plan to use on your own skin so your cat can smell them and have some time to get used to them.

Get your cat used to baby sounds by playing recordings or YouTube videos of crying or babbling, and turn on any noisy gadgets like ambient noise machines, swings, etc. well before the baby arrives. Try to make these experiences pleasant by petting your cat and/or giving him a treat at the same time.

  1. Health and Safety. Get your cat used to regular nail trimmings, and if your cat exhibits behaviors like swatting, nibbling or biting, it’s extremely important that you enroll him in behavior classes before the baby arrives.

Consider carrying a swaddled baby doll around the house to get the cat used to the presence of a baby, and invite over friends and family members who have babies. Always supervise any interactions between your cat and a baby, and never force it. If your cat chooses to stay away, let him, as it could be a sign that he’s stressed.

5. The Initial Meeting. Once the baby is born, ask a friend or family member to take one of the newborn’s used blankets or onesies from the hospital to put in your cat’s crate or bed so that he can become familiar with the baby’s scent. Then, when you bring your baby home, ask someone to stay outside with your baby while you go inside to greet your cat. Spend some time with him, giving him lots of love and attention, and then go outside and bring in your newest bundle of joy. Though the cat may initially run away, he will eventually come back. Allow the cat to investigate, but also set healthy boundaries. Since new babies can’t control their head movements or roll over, a snuggly cat can be dangerous, and a stressed out cat may pee in the crib. So, if he is showing interest in jumping into the crib, consider getting a crib tent to keep him out.