“He’s three years old, gentle as a kitten, and likes dogs,'” says Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn) in Bringing Up Baby (1938), reading aloud a letter about her new pet … leopard. She muses, “I wonder whether Mark means that he eats dogs or is fond of them?”
Bringing a kitten or cat into a home with a baby — or vice versa — is certainly less dramatic than that. Most of the time it goes smoothly and becomes a positive relationship, says Nicholas H. Dodman, BVMS, DACVB, Professor of Behavior Pharmacology and Animal Behavior at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, adding, “I’ve heard of kids getting scratched, but it’s not one of the more common behavior problems.”
You can make it go even more smoothly by choosing a family-friendly kitten, making it feel at home, carefully introducing it to your child, and catching little problems before they get bigger. It starts with understanding feline temperament. “Cats are not all the same,” says Dr. Dodman. “They come in different flavors.”
Understanding Your Cat’s Temperament
Dr. Dodman relies on a scientific classification developed by animal behaviorists Dennis C. Turner and Patrick Bateson to describe the feline personality spectrum:
Alert. A cat who scores high in this category is “active, curious, investigative, exploratory, playful,” says Dr. Dodman.
Sociable. “Cats range from the reclusive to the hail-fellow-well-met,” he says. A sociable cat “gets on well with other people and cats.”
Equable. This term describes “evenness of mood,” he explains. A cat low in this trait might be “mercurial” and prone to “exploding into aggression,” while one who rates high would be “tolerant, long-suffering, and unlikely to fly off the handle.”
The ideal cat to introduce to a family with young children would rate high on all traits. “Then you have a nice cat and won’t have many problems introducing it into your home,” he says. On the other hand, he says, a kitten or cat who “is poor in alertness, known to be somewhat antisocial — hisses and runs and hides — and is so volatile that when he sees another cat in the window he screams and erupts, won’t be good at adapting.” The first step is selecting a kitten with the best temperament for a family.
Obviously, nobody — and no cat — is perfect. Therefore, it’s important that you take a few precautions to make sure the relationship starts out right. That includes teaching your children how to behave around a new pet. “A cat won’t come out of left field and attack a child,” says Dr. Dodman. “But if a child does something bothersome, the cat could react and that could spell trouble.”
The best approach depends on the age of your child or children:
Babies. This is actually the easiest situation. “Babies don’t do much until they start to crawl,” says Dr. Dodman. “They lie in the crib, or in their mothers’ arms. Most self-respecting cats consider babies to be not that interesting.”
You do need to take steps to make sure a kitten — and, especially, a cat — doesn’t sleep in the crib with a child. There are many myths about this, including one that cats “suck” the breath of babies. “Nonsense,” says Dr. Dodman. But cats may be attracted to the nice warm soft crib, with a sweet-smelling baby, perhaps redolent of milk.
And babies don’t have strong muscles to keep their rib cages expanding and contracting — especially if a seven-pound cat is lying on top. Solution? “When the baby is not being supervised, use a cat net over the crib,” suggests Dr. Dodman. “You can keep the bedroom door closed, but doors can open accidentally.”
Toddlers +. Once babies start crawling, and, especially, climbing and walking, there can be more issues. “An ambulatory child will see this fuzzy little cat as a play toy, and lumber toward it and do things to it,” he says. Problems can arise if you have a cat who is not very equable, who may show fear around children. Don’t wait until your child lifts the cat up by the tail and gets scratched. Unless you are supervising, really trust your child, and are confident that the cat will not be hurt or frightened, be ready to intervene quickly to prevent a mishap.
“If the child is very invasive, it may be better to control the child,” says Dr. Dodman. “If your cat is hot under the collar — not equable — you can still have the child and cat together, but interactions need to be supervised.”
Introductions Between Cat and Child
It all starts with the right “getting to know you” moment. When you bring a kitten or cat home, let your new pet get acclimated first. “Cats are territorial, so if you transport them it’s a shock to the system,” says Dr. Dodman. “They have to get used to the new place.” Especially if you have a big house, start with one room. “Put the cat in a room with a nice bed, food, water, and toys. Go in there and interact and let her settle in.”
Once your cat has had a couple of days to acclimate, bring your baby or child in. “If your child is verbal, say something like, ‘This is the way you pet a cat’ and demonstrate it,” he suggests. “Let your child know that the cat will appreciate it if you bring her a treat. Supervise.” Once cat and child have been introduced, gradually expand the area in the house where the cat can go. “It’s like getting into a swimming pool a few inches at a time.”
Problems with Kids Handling Cats
Your rambunctious toddler inadvertently corners the not-so-equable kitten, who reacts by scratching or biting. What now? “Encourage a better relationship,” suggests Dr. Dodman. For example, you may want to have your child “feed the cat a delicious food that comes only from the kid.” This is called counter-conditioning.
If the kitten or cat is prone to clawing and scratching, make sure you keep the nails trimmed. You may want to buy a product such as SoftClaws (softclaws.com), which are tiny plastic nail caps for nails; they minimize the effects of clawing. “Declawing is not an option,” says Dr. Dodman. “We don’t declaw cats here at Tufts to address scratching issues.” For one thing, “if a cat is declawed, it’s more likely to bite.”
On the rare occasion when there is irreparable bad chemistry between a child and a cat — or a history of harmful interactions — you may need to consider re-homing the new cat. But while Dr. Dodman has seen this necessitated by cat/cat feuding, he’s never seen a case where it was needed because of cat/child problems.
Kids and Cats Pair Wonderfully
Once your cat and child get to know each other, expect a warm relationship. “Having a pet — forming a bond with another species — is a very positive thing for a child,” says Dr. Dodman. He recalls his black cat Cinder who would frequently be picked up by his then-four-year-old daughter. “She’d wander around holding the cat under the armpits, feet and tail almost touching the floor. They were tremendous friends.”
Living with a cat helps children understand that we don’t live in this world “in splendid isolation,” he continues. “When you share your existence with a cat or a bird or a dog, you’re more respectful of animal life. We mammals share this planet. I think people who have that empathy and respect for animals turn out to be nicer human beings.”