Introducing toddlers to cats uses some of the same techniques as cat-to-baby, cat-to-cat or cat-to-dog introductions. Even if you don't have a two-legged "kitten" of your own, having the grandkids over or visitors during holidays may mean Kitty meets youngsters only now and then.
Being around young children can be stressful especially for fearful cats, but even confident cats may not recognize a young child as "human." Once the child begins walking and talking, yelling and squealing (in delight at the sight of kitty!), the cat can feel threatened or turn defensive.
Toddlers are closer to your cat's level, and move erratically, sound weird, smell funny (not like adults) so cats may think they're aliens! Proper introductions help keep your cat safe and happy, and can be the beginning of a wonderful lifetime of kitty love for the child as well.
Introductions--6 Cat Purrpectives
When the toddler isn't always there (perhaps grandchildren visit intermittently) it can be helpful to have a scented object to get kitty used to the child. A special stuffed toy or blanket that stays at Grandma's house can be handled by the child. Cats use scent communication a great deal and a happy association with the child's signature odor can be very positive.
The sock trick can help with scent once the child arrives. Cats cheek-rub each other and people ankles to mark with a scent that says "you're safe and a friend." So borrow the toddler's socks, and rub them on the cat's cheeks, and then put them on the child's feet (fur-side out, of course!).
This can suggest to Kitty that the child has already been scent-identified as a friend, and therefore is part of the family and safe.
Sound also is a big part of cat's communication. Toddler laughter or screams of excitement can be introduced with a tape recorder in advance, that gives your cat a chance to become used to and investigate the odd noise without the added excitement of waving arms and running feet.
If the cat investigates the sound or acts calm, reward with calm praise. Should he become upset, try playing a favorite game with Kitty before you turn on the recording so he's having a fun time and associates the infant cries with a benefit for him.
Cats are usually very good at getting out of the way, especially using second-story territory like chair backs to stay out of reach. Be sure that you offer enough of these safe places and escapes. Many cats will enjoy simply watching the antics of a crawling infant or whirling-dervish toddler from a high vantage point. Also provide a "cats only" room that's off-limits to children so the cat has a safe place to retreat.
It can be hard for senior citizen cats to leap out of range so provide steps up to sofas or cat trees. Aging cats that are quite confident often are great choices for toddler companions because they understand the antics of youngsters and even welcome the attention. It's not unusual for old cats to offer a furry shoulder for a toddler's balance during first wobbly steps-it's what we do for family, after all.
Praise the cat when he behaves in a confident, calm manner. Once the kitty understands that treating the toddler like one of the family offers benefits, even reluctant cats become more willing to interact.
Part of that is to teach the child how to interact properly with the cat.
Introductions--7 Toddler Tips
Remind the child that Kitty is NOT a stuffed animal. It hurts to pull hair, tail or ears. Have the toddler practice how to pet Kitty on your own arm or the child's arm.
Screams especially can be off-putting to cats, so the child should also be cautioned and instructed to talk in a quiet "kitty voice" so the pet is more inclined to come near. Explain to the child that he doesn't like scary sounds either, so it's important to know screams scare the cat and also hurt kitty ears.
For shy cats, teach your child an "ignore the cat" game and see how long they can "pretend" not to see the kitty by looking away. Staring at a cat can be a challenge, and be off-putting to felines. But if ignored, cats are more likely to investigate.
Cats hate being chased, especially by strangers. The child is a stranger before he becomes family. Instead, have the toddler or young child sit on the floor with a feather toy or other lure that's kitty-irresistible. Ask your child to drag a length of ribbon across the floor to tease the cat to chase and play. Sitting on the floor and playing with a toy tells the cat that he won't be chased or touched, so the cat feels safer and will come closer. And cats only play with people they like, so it helps build a family relationship.
Offer kitty treats. Find a smelly, tasty treat the cat adores and ONLY gets from the child. While sitting on the floor, the child should gently toss the treat to the cat. Eventually, the child can offer the treat directly on the palm of one hand.
Toddlers have good intentions but lack the ability or control to pick up the cat safely and the cat could lash out if accidentally hurt. It's best to have the cat come to the child. Ask the child to "point" with one finger and hold still…often this will entice the cat to 'nose-touch' the finger in greeting.
If you have a very friendly, confident cat, you can set the cat gently in the child's lap. But always supervise interactions between the child and cat so that neither one accidentally scares or injures the other. Build family relationships with positive experiences one by one, over days and weeks, and there will be enough love to last a lifetime.