It took two years, and our older cat passing away, to finally make my daughter’s dream come true: getting a new cat. So off we went to the shelter, where we found a lovely four-month-old tuxedo cat that was ready for adoption. She was adorable, perching on our shoulders and purring up a storm. She was ready to come home with us. But that meant: we had to create a plan.
Bringing a cat into an unfamiliar environment for the first time can be stressful for the cat, especially if the animal has never been around kids (or, in our case, kid + dog). We smoothed this transition to make it easy for the kitten and the rest of the family. Here’s what we did, and my advice to you when it comes to introducing a new cat to the family.
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Infants to Babies
Infants are in the earliest stages of understanding their world and the ways in which their own bodies move and react in it. Introducing a new cat into an infant’s environment can be a wonderful experience but requires a good amount of patience, common sense, and supervision. Like babies, cats are naturally curious, and will usually want to check out any unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells. You can use this natural curiosity to smooth introductions between cat and baby.
Babies don’t have good impulse control or much of an ability to discern the difference between a toy and a cat. This means babies are GRABBY. At first, your new feline may simply sniff at your infant and at objects carrying the baby’s scent. By monitoring the interactions and reinforcing positive behavior, you can be sure both baby and cat stay safe. A note of caution: cats should not be allowed in the crib with your infant. You may close your child’s door when the baby is asleep because your cat is going to want to get cozy and warm with the baby (ask me how I know).
TODDLERS. Or as I like to call them, walking destruction machines with strong opinions and little control over their behavior. Be sure you can take this opportunity to show your toddler the safe and proper way to approach and pet a cat, gently petting the cat’s head and moving back (with the grain of the fur) toward the hindquarters. Caution toddlers against touching those sensitive areas (feet, tail, and belly) and against making loud noises or sudden movements near the cat’s face.
Also, explain those behaviors that are not okay—such as pinching, grabbing, squeezing, flicking, or pulling of the cat’s ears or tail. Also, caution your toddler against putting her face near the cat’s face, as such gestures may be taken as a challenge or aggression. Also, caution your child not to touch a cat that is asleep or eating. One of the most important lessons you can teach your child is to allow the cat to dictate the duration of any interaction. When the cat walks away, playtime is done. Chasing the animal will only stress it and increase the likelihood of receiving a scratch or bite. If either cat or child becomes worked-up or agitated, it’s time to end the encounter and separate them. A great way to make things easier for your cat is to always make sure your cat has an escape route, whether it’s a high up cat condo or a room the toddler can’t get into.
My daughter was eight when we adopted our kitten (named Leela, by the way). Like most kids her age, she was easily able to understand the basic needs and responsibilities of welcoming a new cat into the family. She offered to help feed and brush the kitty, which was a great way for them to bond. But we did a TON of education with her since a kitten was different than the old sedentary cat we had before.
Before a new cat enters the home, you can prepare your kids by talking with them about what cats do (and do not) like. For example, most kids know cats can see well in near total darkness, but may not know that feline sight is sensitive to quick erratic movements. Explaining how cats see the world can provide a way to caution against making rapid or jerky movements around the cat. Also, you can talk about the sensitivity of a cat’s hearing as a way to caution against shouting and making other loud noises when the cat is nearby.
When it comes to touch, teach kids to approach the animal only when it seems calm and relaxed. Approaching a stressed cat increases the chances of receiving a scratch or bite. With shy or skittish cats, “Let the cat come to you” may be the best advice. As always, patience is key. Touch should be gentle, smooth, and consistent, petting from head to tail. Most well-socialized cats will respond with “participatory petting”—and meet an affectionate hand with head-bumps and cheek-rubs.
Make A Safe Space for Your New Cat
It’s important that your new cat has a safe space to escape the hustle and bustle of a busy family household. A box or drawer lined with a favorite blanket or sweatshirt often fills this need, while other cats prefer a loftier retreat atop a bookshelf or other perch where little hands can’t reach. Be sure your cat has a place to go when its senses become overloaded or when it’s not feeling like interacting. A happy and relaxed cat makes a far better companion and playmate than one that feels stressed, agitated, or threatened.