The benefits of sharing your home with a cat during a child’s developmental years have been well studied by pediatricians and child psychologists. Companion animals, including cats, can benefit children in a variety of ways. According to research conducted at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, children raised with pets tend to have better emotional health, demonstrating heightened empathy as well as better cognitive and social development (1).
The Journal of Pediatric Nursing has noted increased empathy, decreased separation anxiety, and improved social interaction among children with autism who have a pet cat (2). Similar benefits can be seen in children with Down syndrome.
In addition to the emotional and social advantages that growing up with a pet can provide, children may benefit physically, as well. Pediatrics medical journal states that pets in the home may boost a child’s immune system (3). The presence of a cat or dog during a child’s first year of life can decrease the number of respiratory infections and help reduce the development of allergies and asthma later on.
Benefits of Pets for Children
Here’s a closer look at how pets can benefit the children who care for them:
- Pets can help children develop a heightened sense of empathy. As a general rule, children tend to focus on their own feelings. But caring for a pet encourages children to imagine how their pet is feeling. Developing this perspective early on encourages children to apply the same concern for the feelings of their peers.
- Pets teach children to be good caretakers. Kids learn how to be courteous, kind, nurturing, gentle, careful, compassionate, and patient.
- Pets can improve social skills. In many cases, pets play the role of a child’s first best friend. Children often talk to their pets, which helps them develop language and conversational skills.
- Taking care of pets fosters a sense of self-worth. When children help with pet care, they learn about responsibility, cooperation, obedience, and sharing. That helps them develop a sense of achievement and value.
- Pets can help boost kids’ self-esteem. Nothing embodies unconditional acceptance like a purring cat or devoted dog who is a child’s #1 fan.
- Pets can help combat feelings of loneliness. Long-haired, short-haired, and even hairless pets often act as a living security blanket, offering physical comfort, loyalty, love, and affection when kids need it most.
- Some pets can be specially trained to support children recovering from trauma.
- Pets can act as a natural mood stabilizer, helping children work through behavioral and learning problems.
While the 2021 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association indicates that more U.S. households have dogs than cats (4), families with small children may be more inclined to consider adopting a cat. Felines are relatively low maintenance and easy to housetrain, making them perfect companions for busy homes. Furthermore, quieter, more introverted children may be better suited to owning a cat rather than a pet of another species.
Do Cats Bond with Humans?
Cats may have the (undeserved) reputation of being aloof and unaffectionate, however, this notion couldn’t be further from the truth. Cats simply express affection in ways different from their canine counterparts.
Cats are more independent, so their displays of affection are often more subtle. However, a 2019 study published in Current Biology revealed that adult cats and kittens display signs of secure attachment to their owners, similar to the bond human infants have with caregivers (5). The majority of cats in the study were less stressed and more willing to explore new surroundings while in the presence of their pet parents, from whom they drew comfort and security.
Cats can bond with children as strongly as they can with pet parents. We humans just need to learn how to recognize that bond to understand the extent of their love for us. To avoid disappointment, misunderstanding, or hurt feelings, children especially should be educated on the unique ways in which independent felines display affection.
For starters, learning feline body language, particularly how to interpret the position and movement of a cat’s tail, is vital to building clear communications and a solid bond with your cat. For instance, while a wagging tail in a dog can indicate friendliness, a tail flip in a cat typically indicates annoyance. That’s an important distinction!
Cats show us their affection in a variety of unique and endearing ways, which include:
- Vocalizing, including meowing, mewling, chirping, or trilling
- Headbutting (a.k.a. head bunting), cheek rubbing, or rubbing on your ankles. Cats spread their pheromones (scent markers) in this manner to inform other cats that you belong to them.
- Licking or grooming you
- Displaying their belly or rolling on the ground in front of you. Cats only display their abdomens if they’re extremely comfortable around you.
- Sitting in your lap. Cats will curl up on or next to you to indicate that they feel safe and comforted by your presence.
- Following you around and wanting to be in your presence
- Wandering around and exploring in your presence. While you may think your cat is disinterested in you, cats tend to only explore when they feel secure. Take this action as a compliment!
- Engaging in play activity
- Hunting and bringing toys or prey as gifts
- “Love bites” (nibbles) or pawing at you
- “Eye kisses” — when cats stare at you and then slowly blink their eyes to tell you they love you. Try mimicking it back to them!
- Greeting you at the door upon your arrival home
Now that you’re fluent in the language of cats, be sure to share your newfound knowledge with your child to set their kid-cat relationship up for success.
Best Cats for Kids
When it comes to choosing a cat who’s likely to be a good fit for a household with children, there are some key personality traits that can help. For a harmonious home life, look for cats that are:
- Well socialized
- Comfortable with being handled
- Tolerant of noise and sudden movement
- Not overly nervous, timid, or aggressive when unprovoked
While the prospect of adopting an adorable kitten can be hard to resist, be aware that younger children (particularly those under the age of 5) may be unpredictable or too rough with a fragile kitten. They could unknowingly injure the young cat or even cause the kitten to develop into a more fearful and timid adult cat. Training a kitten can also be more time-consuming, which may prove difficult in a busy home with rambunctious toddlers.
If you have young children, adult cats around 2-3 years of age are a great choice. Older children can do well with cats of every age, from kittens all the way to senior cats. What’s most important is to find a cat that is comfortable around children. Consider searching for adoptable cats that are kid-friendly using online sites such as Petfinder, which can match you to available cats at a shelter near you.
Don’t forget that personal chemistry is a crucial part of any pet decision. Be sure to visit the shelter, breeder, or rescue center as a family and observe how comfortable a potential pet is with your child. You may also want to consider fostering a cat for a short time before committing to adoption to ensure the fit is good for everyone involved.
Best Cat Breeds for Children (of any age)
Provided they have the right temperament, any breed of cat can be a great match for a household with children. However, some cat breeds are more likely than others to possess kid-friendly characteristics and traits.
Here are some cat breeds generally considered to be calm, tolerant, and great with kids of all ages:
- American Shorthair or British Shorthair
- Persian or Exotic Shorthair
- Maine Coon
Best Cat Breeds for Older Children
These cat breeds tend to be more energetic and adventurous, so they may be better suited to households with older children.
Cat Breeds to Consider with Caution
While some individual cats within these breeds may be perfectly suited to children, most tend to be more subdued and not as tolerant with kids.
- Russian Blue
- Turkish Angora or Turkish Van
In addition to these breeds, individual mixed breed or non-pedigree cats can also make fantastic pets for kids if they have the right temperament.
Introducing Kids to a New Cat
Once you’ve found your family’s new forever cat, parents can help encourage a successful bond between kids and cats from the very start. When bringing the cat home for the first time, choose a day when you know your household will be calm and less busy. Leave the cat in their carrier for a few hours in a quiet room, such as a bathroom. Then let them out to roam in a safe, enclosed space for about a day. After the cat has developed a sense of security in their new space, it’s time for slow and gentle introductions.
Instruct children to offer their hand initially for the cat to sniff, then they can start to pet the cat lightly. If the cat tolerates this attention, your child can try to pick up the cat (provided they can support the cat’s body weight), or you can encourage your child to sit on the floor and try to set the cat gently on their lap.
You can increase the frequency and duration of these interactions at the cat’s own pace until the cat feels more comfortable with your child. Parents should continue to supervise all interactions between kids and cats as their bond develops.
10 Ways for Cats and Kids to Bond
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With proper coaching, parents can encourage a strong bond to form between kids and cats through a variety of fun, safe activities, as well as age-appropriate caretaking tasks to help instill a sense of responsibility. Children should be taught that pets cannot be ignored just because they are busy or not in the mood to take care of them. Cats and other pets are lifelong commitments.
Here are some ideas to help children and cats bond and develop mutual affection:
Naming the new cat
Once your family has found the purr-fect new addition, involving your child in the naming process is a great way to get them emotionally invested in their new pet.
Shopping for toys, food, and bedding
If you encourage a child to pick out things that will help a cat get comfortable in their new home, they’ll be more inclined to use them to make the cat feel welcome.
Helping out at mealtime
Younger children can assist parents by measuring out food and water at mealtime, but should never be left unsupervised around your cat’s food and water bowls. By age 10-13, children can be assigned to feed and water a cat on a regular schedule. Though it’s always a good idea to double-check from time to time to make sure your cat is being fed consistently.
Cleaning and litter box care
Waste disposal is best reserved for older children who understand how to do it safely and are sure to wash their hands afterward. Though it’s not an appropriate chore for very young, encourage them to accompany you while you do it to get them accustomed to the task.
Occasional cat-safe treats can be used as a positive reinforcement to further strengthen the human-feline bond.
Not every kitty likes to be brushed frequently, but children can be taught how to safely and carefully brush their cat.
Books can be an excellent way for children to learn about cats. Younger kids may enjoy storybooks about cats, while older children can discover important skills, like how to train a cat or decode feline behavior and “tail language.”
Book idea for younger children (Pre-K – grade 3):
“How to Care for Your Cat: A Color & Learn Guide for Kids” by Janet Skiles
“Kitten (ASPCA Pet Care for Kids)” by Mark Evans
Book ideas for older children:
“A Kid’s Guide to Cats” by Arden Moore
Designating a 15-minute playtime for kids and cats twice a day is a great way to socialize cats, encourage exercise, and foster bonding.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many children who were attending school remotely had more time to spend with their pets. Now that in-person learning is increasing, you can help maintain the bond between kids and cats by maintaining a consistent, after-school “mini-break” for kids to spend time playing with, grooming, or feeding their pets. (Cats like after-school snacks, too!)
It’s important to teach children how to play appropriately with cats, to avoid the risk of accidental scratches and bites. Some cat-friendly ideas: a feathered wand cat toy, cardboard box fort, or a smartphone app designed specifically to engage cats. Avoid playing with strings and ribbons, which can pose gastrointestinal linear foreign body risks if ingested. You can also make mealtime more fun with Doc & Phoebe’s Indoor Hunting Feeder.
Training and tricks
Teaching cats tricks can be a fun and rewarding way for older children to bond with a new kitty.
Visiting the veterinary clinic
Annual check-ups and even sick visits to the veterinarian are great opportunities for kids to learn more about what it takes to keep a cat healthy…and may even help them become better caretakers. Ask your child to pay special attention to your cat’s behavior and overall wellbeing at home. You may be surprised to learn about signs and symptoms they pick up on before you do.
Kids and Cats: Safety Tips
With proper preparation, education, and supervision, kids and cats can learn to get along with each other pretty easily. Even so, both kids and cats can be unpredictable at times. So it makes sense to have some guidelines in place to ensure everyone in your home stays healthy, happy, and unharmed.
Here is a helpful list of DOs and DON’Ts you can follow to keep kids and cats safe:
- DO emphasize to children that cats are not toys. To avoid accidental scratches or bites, teach kids how to handle cats gently and appropriately.
- DO encourage children to use quiet voices around cats and avoid shouting or screaming.
- DO limit jumping, running, and sudden movements…especially those meant to startle or frighten the cat.
- DO remind kids that most cats do not enjoy belly rubs or being held for too long of a time. Suggest other ways they can show their love, like head scratches or playing with a special toy.
- DO remind kids to open and close doors carefully. This can help prevent cats from getting injured, getting locked up where they shouldn’t be, or escaping outdoors accidentally.
- DO allow cats to escape to a quiet room or “safe space” if they need a break from activity. Baby gates can be great boundaries.
- DO teach children how to read cat body language so they know how to recognize fearful or angry body posture or tail movement. But remember that adult supervision is often required to detect these behaviors and halt the interaction before injuries can occur.
- DO keep your cat healthy and ensure their vaccinations and preventative treatments are up-to-date to prevent the spread of potential zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be passed between humans and animals). Your cat should be regularly dewormed and treated year-round with a veterinarian-approved flea and tick prevention product. Consistent flea prevention can help prevent the spread of Bartonellosis (cat scratch fever).
- DO keep young children away from cat litter (as well as any sandboxes where a cat may have defecated) to prevent contact with harmful bacteria and parasites such as intestinal worms and Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite that causes Toxoplasmosis.
- DO teach children of all ages to wash their hands thoroughly after any contact with pets, used food or water bowls, and pet waste.
- DON’T allow cats to sleep in a crib or the same room as an infant to prevent accidental smothering.
- DON’T permit a child to pick up a cat unless they can fully support a cat’s weight using both hands.
- DON’T allow children to rough-house, wrestle, corner, or taunt the cat. No hitting. No grabbing. No pulling of the fur, tail, ears, or feet. If you observe your child repeatedly abusing the cat in this way, consult your pediatrician or a child psychologist.
- DON’T let children play games with cats that focus on the hands or quick finger movements. Underneath it all, your loveable furball still has the instincts of a predator, and those wiggly, fast-moving fingers might look a lot like prey.
- DON’T punish a cat for hissing, growling, biting, or scratching, as punishment will only make the behavior worse. Proper training with positive reinforcement to prevent the escalation of fearful or aggressive behavior is more effective.
By following these simple safety precautions, you’re not only protecting your child and your pet, you’re also fostering a lifelong bond and rewarding relationship that will bring them both years of happiness.