Can I Teach My Cat to Let Kids Hold Him?

Girl petting cat

Q. Our cat doesn’t like our kids holding him. How can we get him to tolerate it better? He doesn’t scratch, but he can’t get away fast enough.

A. That your cat leaves before losing his temper shows you have a very smart and sensible cat. And that's a great place to start. Children aren’t born knowing how to hold a cat, and some cats don’t like to be held. Fortunately, you can work on both ends of this equation, teaching your kids to hold a cat correctly and improving your cat’s patience as well.

Children of preschool age or younger don’t always understand that squeezing or even hitting is uncomfortable or painful to others. Many family pets deal with this situation quite sensibly by staying out of the not-so-tender embrace of young children. If you see this happening, don’t force the situation; a cat or dog who gets scared or hurt will naturally try to escape, and that can mean using teeth or claws.

If your children are rough, teach them to pet properly by modeling the behavior on their own skin. Work with each child individually; pet each on the arm gently while saying the word "gentle." Matching the word “gentle” to soft touching will allow you to show them that they should touch the family pet that way. Obviously, you'll tailor your lesson to the age of the child. Though you can discuss how to pet your cat with school-age children, younger children will need to be shown.

Next, slowly build up your cat's tolerance. Hold him in your lap on the couch with your child seated next to you and help your child pet the animal. Cats prefer to be scratched gently behind the ears and under the chin, so start there. Show your child how it’s done, have your child do it herself, and then praise both child and pet.

Keep a careful eye on your cat during this test petting. If the cat is anxious — a twitching tail may be the earliest sign — let him leave. If you get your cat to relax a little and purr, end the session on that good note. If you miss the warning that your cat is getting upset, don’t punish your cat — you’ll make matters worse. Just stop, freeze and let him leave, ending the session without drama. There's always another day.

Once your cat learns to allow gentle petting from your children, you can work with them on the next step, which is teaching them one by one to hold your cat properly. Again, model the correct way to hold a cat: cradled firmly but gently against your chest with your arm supporting his hind end. Again, allow your cat to choose how long to stay held. Remind your child to hold the cat gently, because a cat will fight to get clear if panicked. Build the amount of time your cat allows himself to be held very gradually, always ending the session before he wants to go.

If your cat feels secure in a child's grasp, the amount of time he will allow himself to be held will grow. Since you’re teaching new behaviors both to your cat and your child, be patient. How much cuddling your cat will tolerate will depend on the animal himself — not all cats like being held — and how gentle your children can be. You may never get your cat to be as cuddly as a teddy bear, but you likely will get him to at least relax in a child's arms long enough for them both to enjoy the interaction.


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