The mix of kittens or cats with very young children can pose problems, and many times it’s just easier to wait until the kids are old enough to understand how to properly handle an animal before adopting a pet. However, families often do successfully raise both animal and human broods. The one exception might be very young kittens who tend to use people as mountains to climb (and dig their claws into human flesh in order to do so!). In this case, it’s usually actually better to adopt two kittens so they play mostly with each other. Other than that, it’s simply a matter of supervision and education.
Children learn all the time when they play, and much of their time is spent role-playing. They mimic the behaviors they see in their parents, siblings and other important people in their lives. You can take advantage of this natural teaching opportunity by introducing a stuffed toy (a kitten, in this case, although it could, of course, be a puppy if that’s the type of pet you’ve decided on). When you handle the toy, you exaggerate how gently you must be, stroking the kitten’s fur with one finger and never, ever pulling its tail, for instance.
If a family member or friend already has animals in their home, use that as a real life opportunity to demonstrate proper pet care — including leaving the cat alone when it’s ‘napping’ (exaggerating again by hushing and tiptoeing around). Always praise your child for his or her appropriate behavior around the animal, and when there’s an incident where the cat hisses or the dog growls, explain why that happened. (“It hurts Fluffy when you pull her tail, and she’s telling you to be gentle and not to hurt her.”) Again, use every incident as a teaching opportunity and keep your reactions as calm and matter-of-fact as possible. This will reassure both the animal and your child.
Your child and pet equally rely on you to keep them safe. This means when they are in a room together, they must always be supervised — without exception or excuse. If you are unable to do that for a short period of time (while you’re busy at the stove, for example), just separate the two. You can make use of a baby gate which you’ve likely got installed anyway if you’ve got crawling babies and young toddlers around, or just close the pet off in a separate section of the house until you’re free.
Do be prepared for scratches from cats and kittens and nips from puppies and dogs. These are almost inevitable and usually come about through play. Kitten scratches hurt like the dickens (because the little claws are razor-sharp) and teething puppies will chew on a hand as happily as a toy. Comfort your child, of course, when an accident occurs — but remember that your reaction will greatly influence him or her. Explain why this event might have happened (the kitten was trying to catch a ribbon or the puppy wanted the cracker) and how it can be prevented in future: use a longer ribbon and eat only when in the high chair.
Raising a young child and pet together can be a challenge at times, but the loyal companionship and life lessons (which include unconditional love as well as a commitment to and empathy for others) are a great trade-off.
Author: Stephanie Olsen