An interesting study published in 2018 titled Compatibility of Cats with Children in the Family and published on Frontiers in Veterinary Science helps us understand the child-cat relationship. It is an important relationship because it can affect how a child relates to cats and going forward how they relate to domestic cats when they are adults. These are my findings and interpretations from that study which you can see by clicking on this link if you wish. I have copiously added my thoughts. I feel I need to because although scientists are more scientific than me, they know less about domestic cat behaviour than me. I feel, therefore, that I can add something to the study results.
Kids more problematic than adults
In general, the relationship of domestic cats to children is less affectionate and “possibly more problematic” than the domestic cat-adult relationship. This may be a perception problem or maybe a real problem with the way children interact with cats.
“Many of the limitations and the relationships are from the cats’ unwillingness to be affectionate” towards children they state. As mentioned, my immediate gut feeling about that statement is that children often don’t know how to interact with domestic cats. And if, for example, they are waving their arms around and being noisy while mishandling cats the cat is going to retreat and show a lack of affection. This is compounded, arguably, by the child’s and their mother’s expectations in hoping for affection from a cat.
Scientists found that cats are more likely to be affectionate towards adults than children in the age range 3-5. In addition to the child’s behaviour, the confidence level of the cat must be a factor i.e. how they interact in general with people they don’t know. And the age of the cat is a factor. Older cats are less likely to “tolerate” (my word) the behaviour of a child who is interacting in a less than friendly way.
Thinking about this as I write the article, it seems that children make a lot of fast, random movements. Cats react to fast movements as if they are prey animals. When they are random as well it may disturb them. They may perceive the child as an unknown dangerous animal. Slow, controlled and gentle movements during interactions will elicit a far more positive response from a domestic cat, especially when combined with a gentle voice.
It’s a known fact, which has been researched as well, that a melodious and gentle or soft voice is far more likely to help in achieving a friendly and beneficial interaction with a domestic cat. Children tend to shout and vocalise loudly when moving randomly. A combination which is unhelpful. These are my thoughts while reading this study.
Many children want their cat to be affectionate but “cats may have less interest in a relationship than the children”. Also, the cats might not like to be held. Not all domestic cats like to be held in any case. Many don’t like it or they interpret it as play and for cats play means play-fighting. If you do hold a cat, it should be to a specific timescale which suits the cat. Often it this is quite a short time; a matter of minutes. Do children who interact with cats realise this? I suspect not because their parents are unaware of this requirement.
Socialising to kids
It would be useful, the study scientists said if kittens were socialised specifically to children. This would train cats to be more willing to accept the movements and sounds and methods of interaction by children.
Europe versus USA/Canada
Cats in Europe were described more positively in their interactions with children than those in other parts of the world. They found that “cats living in Europe were rated as far more interactive and less fearful than those living in the US/Canada”. There is a higher rate of adoption of purebred cats and kittens in Europe rather than adopting from shelters compared to the US. It may be the case that purebred cats are more likely to be better socialised than shelter cats. That is probably the underlying reason.
Although the researchers weren’t sure why. Maybe Europeans have different perceptions or expectations from their domestic cats in terms of their behaviour. This, I think, is an important observation. The expectations of children as to domestic cat behaviour must come from their parents. Children may perceive domestic cats as cute cuddly objects like toys. Children like to handle their cute cuddly toys a lot and they may want to do the same thing with domestic cats which is obviously unacceptable to the cat.
A risk factor in the child cat relationship is the source of adoption. When a cat is adopted from a newspaper advert there is a higher risk of failure in the child-cat relationship compared to adopting a cat from a breeder or a shelter.
Two adults multiple cats
When there are two adults and multiple cats in the home there are more positive outcomes in the child-cat relationship. The reason is unclear. Perhaps there is a greater likelihood of one of the adults understanding cats better and therefore more able to educate their child to interact well with a cat. And in multi-cat homes it is more likely that there will be one confident cat who is able to accept the more boisterous behaviour of a child.
They found that in a household where a child interacted with a single cat the cat was more likely to be aggressive towards the child that in multi-cat homes.
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As mentioned, cats expressed more affection towards adults than the children especially young children 3-5 years of age. Cats that were affectionate towards adults were less affectionate towards children. The researchers said that “the cat’s behaviour is often the limiting factor in the interaction between pet cat and child”. What I would say is that the cat’s behaviour is dictated by the child’s behaviour and therefore it is the child’s behaviour which is the limiting factor.
In order to enhance compatibility, the researchers state that cats in the age range 1-6 “are more likely to be affectionate to very young children than older cats”. Also, don’t assume that cats that are affectionate and fearless towards adults will also be affectionate towards young children.
Focus on kids
My reading of this study tells me that, at least in their conclusion, they do not focus enough on the behaviour of the children which for me is the defining factor in the child-cat relationship.
Below are some more articles on children and cats.