Cats and Kids (part one)

 KSCO Pet Radio show interview on cats and children with Dr. Rachel Geller, Cat Behaviorist, Sunday, January 31, 2021

LAURA PAKIS: Today, we are talking with our guest, DR. RACHAEL GELLER, who is a cat behaviorist among many other titles.  Our topic today is cats and children.

Dr. Geller, my grandson, is almost three years old and just fascinated with cats.  He keeps asking his parents that he would love to have a cat in his family.  My son and his wife are thinking about getting a cat but wonder if there is a specific age that is best for children to have a cat come into the house.

The best age to get a cat with children

RACHAEL GELLER: I think that really any age is okay. Kids of any age can learn how to interact with a cat with an adult or parents’ guidance. I think it’s a great way for cats and kids to learn to build trust and learn to bond. So there’s really not a specific age.

It’s more dependent on age and what you would do. For example, if you had a very small child, you might want to make sure you create two sets of “leave me alone” places for your cat in the house and teach the small child where those places are.

If you allow your cat to have certain areas that are off-limits to very young kids, it can help to reduce any tension and anxieties that cat may get from very young kids who tend to be loud and running around and have more perky jerky motions that [to a cat] might be scary to look at.

If the kid is a little older, you might want to work together with the child to teach that child how to play with a cat, such as a fishing pole-type toy.  In this situation, the adult holds the wand to the toy and the child holds on with the adult.  This is a great way to let the child be part of the game safely and experience how to play appropriately with the cat.

So it depends.  I don’t think there really is a right or wrong age to bring a cat into the home. It’s more how you deal with it or how the parent teaches the child to interact safely with a cat.

I do want to say, as I see many people bring cats into the home with the idea that they’re going to teach responsibility to a child. If you want to give your child or even an adolescent cat-related duties and your thinking you’re going to do this to instill responsibility, make sure these roles are age-appropriate. Your cat’s health and well-being are way too important to depend on a child’s sense of responsibility. Don’t give the kid the responsibility of food and water; maybe give the kid the responsibility of treats during the day r things like that.

When two cats are better than one

LAURA PAKIS:  That makes a lot of sense.  In the past, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought when you get one cat, you should actually get two cats. Is it still okay to get one cat for my grandson?

RACHAEL GELLER: Absolutely. Typically, the rule of thumb is; shelters like, when it comes to kittens, adopt out two kittens because they have a very high energy level.  Kittens should be adopted out in pairs, but for older cats, any cat over two or three years old as they’re mature, it is totally fine to have one cat in a household.

There are definitely cats who prefer to be the only cat in a household. A shelter or rescue will always be able to guide you on that. [They will tell you] this cat loves other cats. He might be lonely as the only cat, but this cat over here. He loves to be the only cat in the household. This might be the cat for you.

Cat care resources

LAURA PAKIS: That’s excellent advice. Is there a good book for kids to read on cats to help them learn more about them?

RACHAEL GELLER: Well, there are a lot of books on cat behavior. I have written one called, Saving the world one cat at a time. There’s a lot of information on the internet as well. One of the best things for a parent to do is to teach your child by modeling, and you don’t need a book for that. 

If the parent knows the cat likes to be scratched under its chin, teach the child how to scratch the cat gently under the chin, with the child nearby. Explain to your kid what you’re doing. If your cat likes to sit on your lap or a window perch, that could be a secure place to start letting your child learn how to touch and pet the cat.

So I think the best way to teach your child about proper ways to interact with your cat is really just by the parent modeling that very good behavior for their young one.  They can even teach their kids how to read basic cat language.

Teach the child that if your cat’s ears are in the T-position, or sometimes I’ll call them airplane wings because that’s more accessible to children, that means to leave the cat alone.

When children can hold a cat on their own

LAURA PAKIS: That’s really clever. I’ve seen younger children carrying cats that make me cringe. Is there a particular way to hold a cat that you can educate a child to do? Or should children not hold onto cats at all?

RACHAEL GELLER: Well, young kids definitely shouldn’t hold cats because they grab them in a not very comforting way to the cat. Younger children don’t really understand.  As the child gets older, the parent can model how to pick up their cat.

Here the parent needs a bit of common sense. If you have a cat who doesn’t love to be picked up, as an adult, definitely don’t let your kids grab the cat and pick it up the cat.

Certainly, you can start gradually, but you don’t have to go from 0-60.  The adult could pick up the cat. Then hand the cat to the child as the adult is standing nearby.  Then guide the child to the right way to hold the cat.

Remember, any time you’re introducing a new behavior with your cat and your kid, the adult needs to be part of the experience.  It is essential first to guide the proper ways to do things. But second, the cat already has a trust and a bond was that adult, so that will carry over to associating that behavior with the child. It’s a way to ease the cat into it.

Cats don’t like abrupt transitions, and cats don’t like change. So anytime you think of bringing a kid into the mix, you want to ease the child into it and that will really go a long way.

Understanding cat body language 

LAURA PAKIS: Another question.  As dog trainers, we tend to talk about the three-day rule. You slowly do something for three days and then you increase every three days. Is that similar to a cat?

RACHAEL GELLER: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is true with cats. There aren’t any tough and fast rules when it comes to time periods. I would say that with cats, the best thing to do is let the cat set the pace of the interactions. Let the cat set the pace of the progress.  In other words, follow the cat’s lead.

Some cats may only need three days. Some may need less; others may need more. Like people, each cat enters into a new relationship or new experience at her own pace. So I always say in these matters, it’s always best to go with the cat pace. Follow the cat’s lead, and, with cats, it is always best to move in gradual incremental with everything you do because they are highly reactive to change.

LAURA PAKIS: Good point.  Hmm.  So what kind of body language is a cat giving off to say, “oh, this is good. I want to continue” or “I’m not ready to go further.”

RACHAEL GELLER: That’s a good question because I always say to people 90% of cat body language comes down to “you’re too close” or “it’s okay to get closer.”

Start by looking at the cat’s face.  If the ears are up and pricked, that’s a sign that the cat feels comfortable in his space.

If the ears go into what I call that T-position or’ airplane wings’, that’s a sign the cat is giving you to stay right there; you’re close enough, backup. Those are things to look for for the ears.

The other thing you can look at is the cat’s tail.  Unlike dogs, who tend to wag their tails very quickly when they’re happy, cats are the complete opposite.  The faster they’re lashing that tail back and forth,  the less happy they are. So if you see a cat really switching that tail back and forth, that cat feels very anxious, perhaps fearful.  Quickly moving tails are a sign to you to know to stay away from that cat, but a tail that up, a tail that moves slowly, or a tail curved around the cat’s body; are all signs that the cat is feeling relaxed. That cat is approachable.

Of course, vocalizations are another way a cat lets us know how he feels.  If you hear a cat hiss, that means the cat is afraid.  If the hiss becomes a growl, that’s more overt aggression.

So if the cat does hiss, that’s a sign that he’s very fearful. So don’t come any closer. If you hear any hissing, look at the cat’s body.  If the cat’s body seems relaxed (you don’t see any fur twitching), those are all signs that it’s okay to approach the cat.

Cats really are amazing communicators with their bodies. If we tune into what they’re telling us, we can actually develop a solid relationship with our cat based on communication. It’s really quite remarkable.

Continue reading this interview here.

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