Cats can make great family pets but learning how to introduce a cat to your children can make the transition in your home much more seamless. While they might have a reputation for being aloof or unsociable, the best cats for kids can be great companions to the entire family, and teach responsibility and patience too. But, if you’re thinking of getting a cat, and you have children at home, there are things to consider.
Whether this is your children’s first time being around cats, or they’ve spent time cats before, taking some time to think about how to prepare for a cat in terms of introducing them to your children can make things a lot easier. Likewise, if your children are seasoned pros at taking care of dogs or other pets, cats are different, and it’s important to bear that in mind.
From how to play with a cat correctly using some of the best cat toys to understanding cat communication, helping your child to learn how to interact with their new feline friend is important for ensuring they both feel safe and comfortable. With that in mind, we spoke with vet Dr. Anna Foreman to get her thoughts on how to introduce a cat to your children.
Anna works as a small animal vet in Hertfordshire, having graduated from the Royal Veterinary College. She loves surgery, and especially enjoys performing more complicated soft tissue and orthopedic procedures while studying towards her advanced surgical qualifications. Anna also works as a vet for Everypaw pet insurance, helping with claims queries and commenting on veterinary topics for many publications. Anna has several pets, including a bearded dragon and a tank of tropical aquatic life.
Get your children involved
Involving your children in the process of getting a cat and then the cat’s subsequent care is a great way to introduce the cat to them. You could look at rescue cats online together, let them pick out some toys for the cat, or depending on their age and maturity level, give them the responsibility of feeding the cat, for example. Or, let them choose some from the best cat treats to help them make friends!
Teach body language
Particularly if your children haven’t spent much time around cats before, they may not know how to read cat body language. Teaching your children a few basic signs to watch out for could save them from getting hurt at worst, and at best could help them develop a stronger bond with your new pet.
For example, teach your children that flattened ears and whiskers and wide eyes are signs that a cat is afraid, anxious, or angry, and they should leave them alone. In contrast, slow blinking or rubbing their head against you shows that a cat trusts you and is happy.
Take things gradually
If a new owner already has children and is introducing a new cat to the household, the key is to be very slow and gradual with exposure, says Dr. Anna Foreman, vet at Everypaw.
She explains that kittens adapt more easily to a new home with children, particularly if they’ve been born into one too. “Even if a kitten has not come from a household with children, if they have had exposure to humans, and seen their mother comfortable around humans, they will have already learned they are not a threat,” she says. “These kittens can be introduced readily to children, ensuring the children are gentle with them.”
If you’re getting a kitten over 16 weeks old, or an adult cat, it’s best to give them their own room to begin with, with everything they need so as not to overwhelm them. Keep things simple and quiet for a few days at least, and gauge how they react to their new environment.
Create a barrier
For the benefit of both the cat and your child, it’s a good idea to create a barrier when they meet for the first time. The cat should be able to see and smell your child through the barrier, without risking any physical contact.
“This will allow them to assess the new person/people without the risk of nervous flight or fight behavior occurring,” says Dr. Foreman, who also recommends using a pheromonal spray. “Once the reaction of the cat has been gauged, an introduction can be made if appropriate.”
If the cat appears calm and looks interested in your child, allow them to come quietly into the room with the cat. However, you should ensure that your child doesn’t run over and try to grab or stroke the straight away. Instead, give the cat the chance to approach the child.
It might take a few sessions of this before the cat decides to approach your child – it’ll differ from cat to cat. However, it’s important not to rush things, as you risk undoing progress. And particularly if the cat shows signs of aggression or being scared, it’s worth doing a few more sessions of barrier introduction first so that the cat gets used to a child being around.
Make sure your children are responsive to instruction
This is important for their own safety, above anything else – you don’t want the cat to get scared and scratch them.
“It’s important to avoid a child becoming over-excited by the presence of the cat,” says Dr. Foreman. “They must not try and grab the cat – the cat may respond in an aggressive fashion if it feels threatened.
“When handling a cat, it is key for a child to be carefully monitored to ensure they do not hurt the cat. Many cats do not enjoy being squeezed or pulled around, and again may respond in an aggressive manner.”
For this reason, it’s easier to introduce cats to older children, who are more likely to listen, and understand why you might need to be quiet and gentle around the cat. As Dr. Foreman explains, “babies, toddlers, and younger children should have a much slower and gradual introduction to a new cat as they are much more likely to become over excited and frighten the cat”.
Keep an eye on the cat’s health
“It’s important to look out for signs of long-term stress in the cat – for example overgrooming or repeat episodes of cystitis,” says Dr. Foreman. “Stress can cause significant medical issues in some cats, and so the temperament of the cat should always be considered before they are introduced to the household.”
“If they already suffer with stress-related issues, then it is likely that the stress of introducing them to children will exacerbate these. If they are a sensitive or easily stressed cat, the same is likely to happen.”
Remember, for best results in the long-term it’s best to be patient. Introducing a new cat to the younger members of your family might take time, and even then there’s no guarantee they’ll become best friends.
And some breed are more friendly than others. Ragdolls and Birmans, for example, are generally more placid than domestic short-haired and long-haired cats, which can make them more suitable to a family setting.
However, it’s always best to take care when introducing a cat to your children – any cat can get stressed in the wrong situation. As Dr. Foreman sums up, “Cats tend to be sensitive animals, often enjoying a household where they are the only cat and/or animal. Introducing a cat to anything new can be tricky, especially small children”.
But if you do it right, the decision to bring a new addition into your home could be one of the best ones you make.
If you're looking for some more expert vet advice on your feline queries, stick around and to find out a vet's opinion on is wet food bad for cats? Or check out this vet's guide to handling upset stomach in cats.
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Adam is a freelance journalist covering lifestyle, health, culture, and pets, and he has five years' experience in journalism. He's also spent the last few years studying towards undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in journalism. While a cat person at heart, he's often visiting his parents' Golden Retriever, and when he's not writing about everything pets he's probably drinking coffee, visiting a cat cafe, or listening to live music.