by Barbara George, Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Many cats view toddlers with apprehension, as a dangerous form of human with erratic and sometimes uncoordinated movements, poor aim when throwing or brandishing objects, unexpected loud noises and bouts of scary, sometimes painful, interaction. No wonder they prefer to keep away until the child has learnt proper control and manners.
From the toddler’s perspective, cats can be quite interesting as they make a noise when hit and perform interesting routines in an attempt to get away. Such fun to see what happens next time.
Toddlers are exploring their world; investigating and negotiating with everything and everyone they come into contact with, pets included. Cats do not easily tolerate being hurt or mishandled; they can lash out in order to protect themselves. In these cases, neither party should be punished as each is exhibiting natural behaviour; punishment is counter-productive to creating a calm and healthy relationship.
For the sake of both the cat and the child, a separate child-proof area needs to be created where the cat can feel safe when eating, sleeping, relaxing and escaping. This area may be a room, part of the house or a safe area out of reach of the child, ideally with high places and preferably inside the home. If practical, there should be at least one escape route to a high place in each room; these are for emergencies when the cat feels the need to get away from the child.
The main safe space must contain everything the cat needs; food, water, sleeping spaces, litter tray, toys and stimulation. A scratch post would be nice, but may not fit on top of your wardrobe! The cat should not be disturbed in this area, so she feels completely safe.
All interaction with the cat should be supervised, for the safety of all. This is also a time to start training the child how to interact with the cat. Young children learn more easily from example, so treat the cat as you would like the child to do. Teaching a child to stroke with the back of their hand allows for safe interaction with the cat, with no chance of grabbing or hitting. Playing games with the cat is a good way to build a relationship.
This is also a time to discuss the ways a cat will indicate if she is comfortable with the attention, and the warning signs of a possible scratch: hissing, ears back, tail waving or moving away. Respecting the cat’s feelings and keeping sessions short will help build trust.
Spend quality time with the cat when the toddler is asleep or otherwise occupied. Having a child in the house may not allow for much free time, however your cat does need special time with competent adults to keep the level of trust in the relationship, and to relax, play games or enjoy a cuddle or grooming session in peace, knowing that she is still a valued member of the family.
Cats tend to resist change. It is a good idea to set up a safe space and whatever else is necessary while the child is still a baby, so the cat can become accustomed to the new rules before they are implemented. Make the changes slowly, allowing the cat to understand and accept each one before making further changes. If taking on a new cat, start with the safe space and gradually allow the cat into the rest of the house, with supervised child time.
Keeping the cat healthy is important both for the cat and the family. Cats can carry diseases and parasites which could affect the child and the family. Cats that are feeling uncomfortable or in pain are more likely to lash out at the slightest touch. Cats that roam are more likely to bring in diseases and parasites. Regular vet check-ups and parasite control are recommended, as is sterilisation for all cats. Litter trays must be cleaned regularly and kept out of reach of children. Teach children to wash their hands after playing with the cat as a general rule.
Some cats may never feel comfortable around toddlers, and prefer to live completely out of reach. As the child grows and learns the correct way to interact, they can form a bond which lasts for years.
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