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Interactions between Children and Cats
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith
Pets & Humans
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A small girl smiling while petting cat Cats can be a wonderful addition to households with children. I have seen cats become the most loved and cherished friend of many children. If you have children and are trying to decide whether or not to add a cat to your family, or if you already have a cat and are bringing a new child into the a family, then this article may be of help. There are several important considerations concerning choosing the right cat at the right time. The article will also explore why cats are sometimes better pets than dogs for small children as well as health concerns for children and cats living in the same household.

As a child, I grew up with cats in the household and as a veterinarian and a father of two small boys that share our home with two cats, I encounter the joys and problems of children and cats on a daily basis.

Choosing the right cat for the right child at the right time

A small boy petting a catBringing a cat into a home with children requires some very serious thought on the part of the parent. I regularly encounter an unhappy owner, or more commonly an unhappy cat that was brought into a family for all of the wrong reasons. Responsible parenting and responsible pet ownership are very similar in that they require 100% commitment from the parent and pet owner. A new kitten is going to initially require time every day for grooming, play, socialization, and training. Children will probably provide plenty of play and socialization but the grooming, litter box cleaning, and training are going to be the responsibility of the parent. Make sure that the entire family is committed to bringing a new pet in the home, otherwise it is not fair to the animal or the family. If parents have any reservations about acquiring a new cat I often discourage them until they have more time or the children are older and can take a more active role in the care of the pet.

Homes with children are often louder and more stressful than homes without them. Choosing a cat or kitten that is more 'laid back' is often a good place to start. When I think of the perfect family cat a large, neutered, male, orange, domestic shortair comes to mind. I have often visited a farm and found a similar cat lying contentedly purring in a doll carriage dressed in doll clothes while a smiling five-year-old girl pushes him around the barnyard.

Cats love gentle attention and respond to affection. Small children and as in my case, little boys, are often more interested in chasing the cat than petting him, so if you have active or aggressive children a cat may be too much of a temptation to them and is not going to be a good choice for a pet.

Cats are more mobile than dogs and are able to jump up on a perch and get out of the way of small children. Cats also pose less of a threat of biting or injuring a child, and therefore may make a more suitable choice than a dog for small children. However, remember that some cats will never adapt well to being in a family with children and some children will never appreciate or be able to properly care for a cat. Deciding to bring a cat into a family with children is a very important decision and should not be taken lightly.

Bringing a new cat into a family with children

A girl welcoming home a new catOnce you have made the decision to bring a cat into your home and have picked out the perfect companion for your children, you should spend some time getting your home ready. Go through and cat-proof your home taking special care to eliminate hazards to a small kitten. Designate an easily accessible yet small childproof area for the cats litter box and food. Have a family meeting and make up a list of rules and duties concerning the new cat and hang it on the refrigerator. Because of the responsibility and potential health risk involved with litter boxes, I always recommend that the parent take on the job of cleaning the litter box.

New kittens and cats are going to need several weeks of quiet time when they are first brought into a new home. Limit play to several short sessions a day and make sure the kitten is not bothered when sleeping. A cat door leading into a quiet room with food, water, litter box, and a sleeping area is a great idea for homes with small children.

Decide where the cat is, or more likely is not, allowed to sleep. While there are many advocates of allowing cats to sleep in the bed with their owners, I caution owners of small children against this practice. While the health risks are small, external parasites including fleas and ticks, as well as the ringworm fungus, can be transmitted from cats to people. If children have allergies, then cats should be discouraged from sleeping with them or in their bedrooms.

Bringing a new baby into a home that already has a cat

I often receive phone calls from anxious parents concerned over the risk of bringing a new baby home to a house that has a resident cat. I often reassure them that if a few simple adjustments are made both the cat and the baby will do wonderfully. The most common concern is whether there is a risk of a cat sleeping with and smothering a baby. While I assure them that I have never heard of this happening, I caution them that it is well known that there is a strong correlation between sleeping position and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Pediatricians have strict recommendations for the type of bed and blankets used, as well as never placing stuffed animals or other toys in the bed with babies or small children. Because of the risk of suffocation, it is never acceptable to allow a cat in the bed of a child under three years of age. In our own home, our cats are not allowed into the children's bedrooms and there is a door that can be closed to keep them out at night.

Some cats have difficulty adjusting to a new baby initially. The new parents are often busy, tired, and focused on the new baby. The cat that was once the center of all the attention has now taken a back seat to the new baby. By anticipating this and the potential problems that could arise, a pet owner should try to lessen the shock by slowly introducing new baby furniture, blankets, etc., over a period of time. After the arrival of the baby, make sure you set aside time every day to groom and play with the cat. The adjustment period may take a month or longer, but almost all cats adjust after a short while. Adding a new cat to the family at this time as a companion for your cat is not always a good idea. A new kitten will just add to the stress of the existing cat as well as taking more of the owner's time away from the cat to care for the kitten.

Health Concerns

Most of the health concerns involving children and cats concern toddlers and small children and revolve around the children coming into contact with cat feces. Roundworms, the protozoan Toxoplasma, and certain bacteria can all be transmitted to children that ingest cat feces. For this reason I recommend that children are not allowed to play around or clean the litter box. Outside sandboxes and dirt piles are also a place where children can come in contact with cat feces. Invest in a sandbox that can be covered. In our house, we have eliminated the sand and use pea gravel instead. It is much cleaner and cats are not attracted to it like sand.

A cat being vaccinated against rabies Keeping your cat properly vaccinated against rabies is a must, as well as frequent de-wormings and parasite control like the once-a-month topicals. I apply the monthly topicals to my cats at night after the children have gone to bed and discourage handling of the cats for 24 hours. The flea growth regulators like Program have been shown to be very safe for both cats and the children that handle them. The ringworm fungus is a fungus carried by some cats that can infect children. While the fungus is irritating, it is not a serious health concern for healthy children and can be easily treated with a prescription anti-fungal cream. If you suspect that either your cat or child may have ringworm, you should seek out veterinary and human medical advice and care.

Cat bites or scratches are another common medical concern. Because of the risk of infection, particularly from the bacteria Bartonella henselae that can cause the serious infection known as 'cat scratch fever,' cat scratches and bites should always be treated seriously. Thoroughly clean and disinfect all scratches and bites, and seek immediate medical attention if there is any sign of infection, pain, or fever.

Preventing scratches or bites is crucial. Teach your children to handle and treat cats correctly. Use intervention to prevent bites and scratches. Young children and cats should never be left unsupervised, and be particularly cautious with stray or unfamiliar cats. If you have a cat that is intolerant or aggressive with children, seek out professional veterinary advice and training. Separation or placement in a home without children may be necessary in some cases.

Simple solutions for common problems

The following is a list of some common cat-child problems that arise and a list of possible solutions.

The child wants to play in the litter box.

Solutions: Put up a child gate.
  Put the litter box out of reach on a table or shelf.
  Put the litter box in a room with a door that the child canot open, and install a cat door for the cat.

The toddler eats the cat food.

Solutions: (The same as for playing in the litter box.)

The cat gets in the child's bed.

Solutions: Put a door on the child's bedroom.
  Discourage the cat from going into the child's room.
  Provide the cat with a perch or bed of its own.

The cat uses the child's sandbox for a litter box.

A cat high up on a cat perch
Solutions: Use a sandbox cover.
  Replace the sand with pea gravel.
  Remove the sandbox completely.

The children chase and worry the cat.

Solutions: Supply the cat with a high perch that the children cannot reach.
  Provide the cat with an escape room and cat door.

The cat is aggressive toward the children.

Solutions: Encourage the children to not handle the cat.
  Have the children feed the cat and give the cat treats.
  Contact a veterinary behavior specialist for the cat.

Children can develop wonderful relationships with their cat. To help ensure that, follow some good common sense precautions and choose the right cat at the right time for your child. Both the child and the cat require a huge investment of your time and energy. You will find that if you can devote the time to both, your rewards will be far greater than anything money could ever buy.

Click here for a pdf version of this article.  See related products at DrsFosterSmith.com Pet Supplies  
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