By Cheryl Lock
If you’ve ever heard anyone say, “Cats are so much easier than dogs…” I would have to respectfully disagree.
In the nearly three years that I’ve had my own cat, Penny, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on vet bills (mostly due to the fact that she was recently diagnosed with asthma), countless hours grooming her, cutting her nails and cleaning out her litter box … and trust me, she can be just as needy as any dog is, if not more.
So when the topic comes up about getting a pet cat for little kids, it’s obvious there’s a lot to consider. While it’s true that every kid matures at different rates, in general, you can have a pretty good idea of when your child might be ready to take on the responsibility of handling certain duties that are necessary to take care of a feline friend. Kay Cox, known as The Pet Counselor, is an animal psychologist and teacher. “I think it’s extremely important to teach and train both children and animals how to interact with each other,” she says. “That’s what I’ve been helping people do for years.”
We asked Cox to break down some of the different responsibilities that come with owning a cat into the age groups when some kids might be ready to take them on. Here’s what she had to say. Keep in mind, of course, that cats who aren't de-clawed can easily scratch and hurt young children, especially if they think they're playing. That's why it's essential that an adult always be present when young kids are around cats, and any animals, for that matter.
Babies: If you have a new baby, obviously your baby won’t be in charge of taking care of an animal—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done. “Your cat will need to feel like she is still part of this big change in your family,” said Cox. She suggests a five-step process including:
Before the baby arrives, begin setting aside what will be “baby time” so that your cat becomes used to it and won’t feel pushed out. Once the baby arrives, introduce your cat to the baby carefully. Excited or jealous animals can become hostile, so it’s super important to use caution, be calm and soothing. When your cat reacts positively with the baby, use lots of praise. Don’t forget to still spend time with your cat. They’re your “fur” kids, says Cox, and they still need attention, too. When people come to visit you and the baby, Cox suggests keeping small treats at the door for the cat so she feels like she’s part of the celebration.
Toddlers: Remember that young children do not have control of their arms, hands and feet, so you must control their movements to ensure they are gentle with the cat. It will also be important to teach your cat to allow little ones to reach into their food bowls and water or to touch their toys. “No matter how hard you try to keep young children away from these things, children will always venture to check them out,” says Cox. To do so, train your cat with your own actions. Get him used to the words ‘gentle,’ and never leave a child unattended in the same room with a cat unattended. Even the most docile of cats need to have their behavior monitored around small children.
Three- to six-year-olds: By the time your child is 3, if you’ve been working with your cat and your child all along, they will probably have built a strong bond by now. This means your child can probably start helping out with your cat’s care at around this time. Young kids can help feed, water, brush and play, with supervision of course. Don’t expect children this young to remember that your cat needs to be fed and given water or played with every day, but allowing safe pet care training helps foster responsibility, even at this young age.
By 6-years-old, specifically, most parents start to consider giving their children chores, and taking care of the family cat can be part of that. “Chores such as giving treats for tricks, feeding one of the meals, cleaning the water or food bowls are all relatively easy, and good beginning pet chores for children,” says Cox. “Make it a happy interaction and both the child and the pet will love it.”
While it’s true that it takes a little time and effort in the early years of any child’s life to help get them used to and prepared to take care of an animal, at the end of the day it’ll be one of the best things you can do for both your kid and your cat – and you’ll know that when you see how close the two of them grow to become.