Kids and Cats
February 5, 2016 2:09 PM   Subscribe

I would like to hear about how you've been able to raise a kid and care for an affectionate yet skittish cat. How did you do it? I'm particularly interested in stories about kids between the ages of 2-10.

My husband and I have started talking about having a child soon, and I'm feeling a bit of anxiety about it. Right now, one of my biggest concerns involves my very sweet but very needy cat, who is currently the only pet in the house. He's 5 years old, indoor only, totally attached to me, and merely tolerates my husband. Like many cats, he hates loud noises and unpredictability. He loves to cuddle (only with me) and play (pretty much only with me). He's begging for my attention right now, in fact.

I've read enough questions about how to handle a cat and a baby, and I think I know how we can handle that situation. I'm more worried about life with a bigger kid. I've watched my 6-year-old nephew repeatedly roughhouse his little sister in spite of his parents' protests, and I'm worried that my kid won't be able to resist terrorizing my beloved pet. Is a kid is just going to make my cat's happy life irritating and lonely? For the record, he doesn't have a companion because of my husband's allergies. Also, I think he's grown accustomed to being a single cat.
posted by MsMartian to Pets & Animals (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
My sister and her husband have a now 22-year-old devon rex cat. Their human children are now 17 and 11.

The cat was off limits to the children as much as possible. The younger child really really wanted to pet the cat, and eeeeevery once in a while the cat would be ok with it, but really the cat is in charge and only wants one person, my sister's husband.

It helped that the cat had places to escape to and was not above hissing/swatting at the children if necessary.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 2:30 PM on February 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

My cat wanted nothing to do with my child, and my child wasn't that interested in the cat. I'm still His Person, but he has gotten used to my constant getting-up and sitting-down. Keep in mind that your potential child's crawling/walking is 2+ years away, and even the early-walkers don't move fast enough to catch a cat for a while after that. Your cat will probably adjust absolutely fine.
posted by nkknkk at 2:33 PM on February 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

We have two cats, one which was pretty affectionate and one which was more aloof. Since having kids (now 1.5 and 4) they have both become very affectionate towards the adults in the house and leave the kids alone. Our older kid now leaves the cats alone but when she was younger she would chase them, pull their tails, etc. Our younger kid is in that phase now.

I must say I've been quite surprised with our cats' restraint as they tolerate a great degree of chasing and tail pulling before they will hiss, and then after hissing potentially bite or scratch if the behaviour continues. We're OK with that because the kids need to learn when enough is enough and a small scratch or bite is a good way of teaching that.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:36 PM on February 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you're hoping to create an affectionate and mutually-respectful relationship between your future children and your cat, please don't let the kids pursue and harass your cat until the cat feels threatened and stressed enough to swat. For one thing, that's really, really unfair to the cat. For another, it will send a message to your child that it's OK to make other living creatures upset enough to lash out.

Constant reinforcement that we treat kitty gently, that we don't make him run away, and that if he's hissing at us it means he doesn't like what we're doing will help establish good behavior. The same way as any other bad behavior results in consequences (loss of privileges, a time out, etc.), harassing the cat should always have consistent consequences.

Of course sudden movements and loud noises will freak the cat out, so always be sure the cat has a means of escape into a room the child can't access, or at least to an elevated perch the child can't reach. My experience is that cats are pretty resilient if they're given enough time and space to adjust to change on their own terms, so between diligently rewarding good behavior towards the cat and providing the cat with a safe spot, you should be OK. It sounds like you're a wonderful cat guardian!

(My cat just added this by putting his head down on the keyboard: ```````)
posted by jesourie at 3:14 PM on February 5, 2016 [9 favorites]

My partner had two cats when she had her first. They never smothered the baby. The shy, skittish cat never bothered the baby but he chased after her when he was learning to crawl and cat gave him a black eye. The social one got into his bed once, but was otherwise okay.
posted by parmanparman at 3:15 PM on February 5, 2016

She also says the cats sat on her belly when she was pregnant and just purred and it was very sweet. And, they had access to the outdoors and didn't have trays inside.
posted by parmanparman at 3:17 PM on February 5, 2016

We have always had cats, my parents always had cats, my kids grew up loving them and were never hurt by them nor did they hurt the kitties. I have a picture of one son at about 6 months with kittens crawling around him. My children were very healthy, no allergies, grew up to be healthy animal loving adults. Cats and kids generally adjust to each other, if you follow the advice here from others about teaching children how to be gentle, and giving the cat means of escape when she has had enough.
posted by mermayd at 4:11 PM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have two very rowdy and wild little boys, and my cats are fine. The cats have plenty of time to get used to the small humans' mobility as they gradually gain it, and can thereby set their own tolerance for it. We spent a lot of time teaching "gentle gentle" and which direction to pet a cat's fur (VERY CONFUSING for small children!) and not to chase a cat who's running away and how to approach a cat you want to pet, over the course of a few years, when the cats happened to be feeling tolerant. And my cats not only tolerate them (at 6 and 4) but sometimes proactively seek them out for petting and attention. The boys are NOT rowdy with the cats; we have spent a lot of time teaching them to behave appropriately towards the cats, and the time-outs for misbehavior towards the cats are the longest available in our house, and they internalized the lessons pretty quickly and completely.

During the 2-to-4-or-so years, we always had baby gates up that the cats could get over or get under, but the kids couldn't, so the cats could easily escape the children and be left alone. They also got wise very quickly to seeking me out for attention during naptime or after the kids went to bed. It does help that by the time the children are quick and strong enough to CATCH a cat, the novelty of the cats existing has worn off. (Whereas when we visit friends with dogs, the novelty value of a dog is SO HIGH that they have a much harder time behaving properly.)

When the first baby arrived they spent about six months hiding under the couch because they weren't pleased with the upheaval, but with #2 they were just like "GOD THIS NOISE AGAIN" and shifted their napping spots to quieter rooms.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:12 PM on February 5, 2016 [6 favorites]

We have 2 14-year-old cats and 2 kids (now 5 and 2). One of the cats has always been skittish and just doesn't ever let the kids come near her. No problem there. The other cat is of a more optimistic, not to say lazy, temperament, and as long as there's an adult present to reassure him he actually enjoys a certain amount of kid affection. Our kids adore both the cats. We do not allow the kids to chase, whack, pull, or yank on the cats, or to "pat" them vigorously. They are allowed to give gentle strokes under adult supervision, usually with one of the adults simultaneously scritching the cat's ears and intoning "gentle pats, nice hands, stroke the kitty toward his tail" etc. The 5 year old is now really good with kitties and the friendlier cat will actually seek him out for snuggles and sit on his lap. Even the 2 year old can tell you that you're supposed to be gentle and nice with kitties and not follow them when they leave on cat business, although sometimes he still gets overexcited and has to be reminded to be gentle.

Basically, as long as the cat isn't cornered in some way, cats are perfectly able to decide for themselves how much toddler affection they are willing to withstand, and the key is to watch the toddler so that they don't inadvertently terrorize the cat. The danger zone is really from the age when they learn to crawl and don't have any idea what they're doing to about age 20 months, when they are mostly able to be gentle as long as they're supervised/reminded.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 4:13 PM on February 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Our gray cat sounds kind of like your cat in temperament, but ours is probably more of a jerkass. He largely ignores our two-year old, if he can - although he does like to cuddle up to her to nap. And he will accept some affection from her. If she dispense that affection juuuust right. He also is concerned about her when she's hurt or sick. But he doesn't want to hang out with her, the way he wants to hang out with me.

But here's the deal. It doesn't matter that our kid has always received consistent feedback on why she shouldn't hassle the cat, and consistent instruction on how to properly interact with the cat. She's a tiny child, and she doesn't fully get it. She is in no way mean to him, but she doesn't fully understand cat psychology.

I get that you're concerned about your future child not being a terrible abuser of your cat. That's really unlikely to happen, if you raise her to love animals the way that you do. We love our crazy bastard cat, and we're sure our kid loves him, too. I have no doubt she'll grow up to be an animal lover. But at the moment, it's not really an issue of whether she hurts the cat. He's capable of walking away if he's tired of her affection, especially since we monitor their interactions and don't allow her to be rough or annoying. The real current issue, is whether he hurts her.

Doubtless I'm opening myself up to labels of Worst Parent Ever, on top of Worst Cat Owner Ever. People tend to think, "well, if your cat has harmed your child, it's all your fault for not perfectly communicating to a child's underdeveloped brain, how to navgiate the complex boundaries of cats. It's never because cats and children are unpredictable and not fully controllable." But we don't have the ability to keep our cat and our child separated at all possible moments, and toddlers get up to hijinks VERY quickly. Our cat has drawn our child's blood on many occasions. He was not always clearly provoked, either -- unless you think a sleeping infant had it coming, somehow?

And scratches and bites aren't necessarily just benign mishaps that'll turn into good lessons for the child. Our cat has scratched our child's face, and a light bite got her put on antibiotics. Our child's pediatrician shrugs this off as normal, by the way. He doesn't think it's at all unusual that a toddler would accidentally annoy a cat, and get scratched, on the regular. Hazard of cat+toddler, as far as he knows.

We love the hell out of our cat, but he has become a somewhat unpredictable source of injury to our child. He is NOT an unhappy, mistreated, neglected, unhealthy cat. We've had him since he was a kitten, and he is our friend. He is a cat, though, and he has always been kind of an asshole. However, no one who knows him, would call him mean or scary - just high-strung. He's not a bad cat. But at the moment, the cat is much more hazardous to our kid, than she is to him. Her motives toward him are good, but imperfectly executed.

This point is one that I often don't see in discussions like these. Even if you're doing the very best you can to make your child into a gentle animal lover, there are growing pains. It's not fun when your beloved cat hacks a trench into your beloved child.
posted by Coatlicue at 5:28 PM on February 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

Your six-year-old nephew isn't behaving that way because that's what all six-year-olds do, he's behaving that way because his parents haven't done their job in enforcing expectations on how to treat his sibling.

How your hypothetical child will treat your cat, in the end, will primarily be determined by how you choose to raise that child. That very important choice - that will be reinforced by not just your words, but your actions, reactions, moods, and tenacity - will impact how that child treats all animals he encounters throughout his life.

This same idea applies to how a child is taught acceptable behavior across the board...
- how they interact with those smaller or weaker than themselves,
- how they treat their possessions,
- how they react to responsibilities,
- how they respond to instruction,
- how they respect authority figures, etc.

Simply telling them seventy-three times not to do something is NOT going to work - a parent must be willing to immediately STOP or REDIRECT the undesirable behavior - even if it disrupts what the parent wants to do.

It's called consistency. And it works.
posted by stormyteal at 6:21 PM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

My mom had an anti-social and cranky cat that avoided my older brother. When I was born this cat would hang out and sleep with me in my crib. My first word was "kitty." This cat kept hanging out with me through me starting to walk and through me getting a big bed. Cranky cat loved me until I was a few years old at which point he died because he was 19.

Cats make their choices. I don't think you need to worry about the cat as long as it has places to escape to. Worry about making sure you teach the kid to be gentle. It will all work out.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 6:35 PM on February 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

The most important thing is that the cat can escape. I think my baby brother pulled a tail maybe twice in his life (extremely well-supervised, one ridiculously passive cat and one incredibly anxious/avoidant cat.) Between his mom's interventions and instruction, and the cats learning what he was capable of, everything worked out great. He's basically the current cat's Person, now. Sam actually sleeps on him, and he's otherwise a "I'm generally OK with you being in the room but I must be ten feet away at all times" sort of kitty.

I'd be a lot more worried with an overly tolerant cat, by the way. A cat who won't put up with crap is probably less likely to injure the kid, and is absolutely less likely to get injured by the kid.

My brother also taught all his classmates the phrase "be gentle!!!" in preschool, which was pretty funny. Almost as cute as "that is not OK!!!!"
posted by SMPA at 7:30 PM on February 5, 2016

My parents did this. They always had cats as long as they've been together, including when I was a baby, toddler, and child. I remember a lot of stuff about the cats much more clearly than other early memories, and they've told me things I don't remember.

The first cat (the one when I was a baby) was named Molly, and actually liked me immediately more than she even liked my parents (because my parents had to administer medicine, I suspect.) As soon as I was old enough to follow basic instructions, my parents tell me they were showing me explicitly how to touch and NOT TOUCH the cat. When to touch and not touch the cat. They were basically teaching me how to speak cat (when she does this, she wants you to pet her. You can pet her like this. When she does this, she wants you to stop. When she does this, she wants you to go away.)

They never, EVER apologized for the cat. Yes, I got a few bites and scratches because kids are dumb. But my parents always came down on the side of the cat and told me that I should have done [something] differently. Every negative incident was a teaching moment - don't move so fast next time, don't be so loud next time, don't squeeze so hard next time.

Plus, when I was maybe 7 or 8, I got a cat of my own, with ALL the stuff (food, water, litter) kept in my room and being considered my responsibility (though of course I was inconsistent and mom had to help/remind/etc., but still.)

I love having grown up with cats, wouldn't have it any other way. Taught me a lot of like... "the things I do have consequences" and "living things have feelings and should be nicely cared for" and all sorts of other nice lessons everybody wants kids to learn.
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 9:21 PM on February 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

My friend's cat hated her baby - hissed at it, scratched it. Her wife tried to trade the cat to me for my own phlegmatic cat. (Not going to happen, obviously). The cat was frightened and jealous of the baby.

Their cat sitter gave them the solution: put baby clothes on the floor, and put cat food on them. They did this a couple of times, and boom! the cat associated the smell of the baby with food and stopped being aggressive, and instead was cautiously affectionate.

Food: the great peacemaker.
posted by jb at 3:32 PM on February 6, 2016

I was raised with cats. My parents (well, my mom, a real Crazy Cat Lady who currently feeds half a dozen ferals) had two enormous unneutered (it was the 60s) tabbies when I was born -- they weighed nearly 20 pounds each (litter mate brothers, inseparable, and they died at 15 within a week of each other, the second of a broken heart). There are pictures of me *in my crib as a freaking tiny baby* (again, the 60s, it was another time) with these cats stretched out alongside me on either side, dwarfing my infant self. I tell people I was raised by cats, and I'm only half kidding.

I loved them so much as a child, and even as semi-feral outdoor unneutered males, they were nothing but affectionate (and even protective) with myself and my three siblings (born close together, these cats were around multiple babies and toddlers for years). None of us can imagine our childhood without them, and I became a lifelong obsessive cat lover (as did two of my siblings) from the experience. I probably got a scratch or two along the way (nothing I didn't deserve), but those cats were like siblings to us. They vastly improved childhood. I say kids and cats are fine together.

Of course, cats differ individually. Some are more skittish and some more aggressive than others.

I just posted a comment in another cat thread about a pheromone product called "Feliway" which -- for our newly-adopted skittish semi-feral girl -- produced a miraculous transformation and calming effect. I describe it in detail here. Might be a useful resource while cats and kids are getting used to each other.
posted by spitbull at 8:15 AM on February 8, 2016

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