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Kids have a lot to learn about the world around them. Unfortunately, during this exploratory phase, it’s not unusual for collateral damage to happen such as sandwiches posted into the DVD player, teddy swimming in the toilet. . . you get the picture. But when the object under investigation happens to be a cat, someone (two or four-legged) could get hurt.
It’s a child’s job to explore and act impulsively. This is all very well when it comes to making potato prints or learning to ride a bike, but it may be downright dangerous when it involves tugging on a cat’s tail. Down this path lies the scenario where the child gets scratched, and learns at a young age to be nervous around cats.
Like adding a match to kindling, mixing very young kids and cats can be an explosive combination. One of the main reasons is that young children are poor at reading animal body language, and don’t realize the cat is sending out strong messages to back off. Add into this a cat’s dislike of having their purr-sonal space invaded and you have fireworks in the making.
But rather than keep kids away from cats (which in itself sends out a confusing message) the better option is to teach children a healthy respect for all animals, including how to respect cats.
Children that learn how to care for pets are more likely to grow up into empathetic, considerate, and sensitive adults. So how do you avoid the potholes on this hazardous path, and keep the kid happy and your cat content?
Here’s how to teach your child to respect cats and other pets:
Build Feelings of Empathy
Read books (appropriate for the child’s age) together, which show how animals have feelings too. Watch movies or TV programs about animals, and discuss why they act as they do. From an early age, teach children about animals. Guide them to understand that animals have needs and feel hunger, fear, loneliness, boredom, and pain.
For slightly older children, talk to them about how people impact on animals, both by their actions and inactivity, and what happens when pets aren’t treated well. Perhaps visit an animal shelter open-day and as you walk around explain to the child why caring for animals is so important. You may also like to check out any reading to animals (cats or dogs) that are organised by your local shelter, library or cat cafe.
Set a Good Example
It’s easy to forget that children copy what we do. Therefore set a good example by how you act around the pet. It’s no good giving a child a lecture about respecting cats, only to then use disparaging language such as: “You stupid / fat / lazy / smelly [delete as applicable] cat”, or talk in a demeaning way such as “It’s just a cat.” Youngsters are liable to take this on board and think it’s OK as “Mum / Dad say it.”
Actions speak louder than words. Show your cat kindness in the little (and big) things you do. Always stroke your cat gently and speak softly. Take time to care for your cat and brush her regularly, and take pleasure in playing with her, so the child views these activities as important.
Show your child how a pet owner should take responsibility for the pets in their care. Set a good example by getting your cat desexed, vaccinated, and dewormed, and make sure they see a vet when sick. This is subconsciously teaching the child about the value of an animal and our responsibility to look after their well-being.
Involve the Child
There’s nothing quite like stroking a cat and getting a steam-train purr, to learn about cause and effect! But kids are heavy handed, and so you must show the child what to do. Try making this fun by using a cuddly toy as a stooge cat. Show the child exactly where and how to stroke to make the cat happy. Then praise the child for doing it right.
Maybe indulge in some role play games so the child treats the toy as a real cat and remembers to groom, feed, stroke, and leave it to rest, over the course of a day.
To build a strong pet-child bond, let your child know when they did well. For example, it can be hard for a child not chase after the cat, so be sure to praise the youngster when they sit still and the cat comes to them. Try not to constantly tell the child what not to do, but instead praise when they get things right.
Talk to the child about how the cat feels threatened by a rampaging toddler and may lash out. But keeps things positive by playing a befriending game, where you pretend to be the cat and the child practices approaching and petting in a non-threatening way.
With slightly older children you can translate this into actual care (supervised as necessary) where they prepare the cat’s food and put it down for the cat to eat, or play with the cat. A top tip here, especially if the child is anxious about getting clawed, is to use toys that work at a distance such as a wing-on-a-string where the fluttery feathers are safely away from small fingers.
Put a Plan in Place
In an ideal world a child learns how to read a cat’s body language and knows when to give her space. But this is advanced stuff, so play your part by putting a plan in place.
Cats don’t attack unless they have no choice, so the simple act of leaving an escape route takes the heat out of most situations. Teach the child to leave a clear path between the cat and the door, so when outside her comfort zone the cat can make a safe and quick exit.
And last but not least, show the child, in everything you say and do, that the cat is a valued member of the family. This is the path to foster a life-long love of animals and raise the next generation of caring cat guardians.
What have you done in your home, to teach your child to respect cats and other pets?