Help your kids learn to care for their cats

Help your kids learn to care for their cats

By Steph Selice

You’ve planned on getting a cat because you and your kids wanted one, and you’ve all prepared for the adoption. You and your family met many kitties at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, King Street Cats or another animal adoption organization. Or you decided to adopt a kitty from your neighborhood.

Now your kitty is home! What are some ways to introduce your kids to the day-today chores of cat care while helping them bond with and love their new pet?

I spoke with a dozen cat people including vets, vet techs, animal rescue advocates and cat ladies and gentlemen about the answer to that question. Their responses were thoughtful, and they all focused on common themes.

Respecting your cat’s personal space

You’ve probably been teaching your kids about how to pick up, hold and pet their cat safely and how to give their pet space. Toddlers and preschoolers learn most about what cats like and don’t like through your example. Learning when the cat needs a timeout in their own space in your home is important. So is understanding what belongs to your cat, from food and water dishes to kitty-designated space as well as toys, scratching posts, bedding and litter boxes.

These are among the earliest lessons kids can learn about cats. Cat people agree they’re also among the most useful for living with cats throughout their lives.

Feeding, watering and giving treats

Several experts recommended starting young children in cat care by supervising them as you change your new cat’s water bowl twice a day. Kids learn that your cat’s drinking water and dish need to be clean, just like their own, and that these are only for your cat. You might suggest changing water in the morning before school and then before dinner.

As kids learn to pick up after themselves and do chores, they can watch you feed the cat and then start to help with putting out dry and wet food in your cat’s dining space. You could show them how much cat food is enough and explain why overfeeding isn’t a good idea.

Depending on your cat’s diet and preferences, kids can learn when they can share a low-calorie cat treat or some catnip with their kitty, including as a reward at playtime or for taking prescribed vet medicine.

Brushing and grooming your cat

One of the best ways to bond with a cat is through brushing and grooming. Elementary school-age children may be ready to help keep your cat’s coat smooth and clean. Regular combing and brushing helps cats avoid getting parasites or forming hairballs. It’s also a wonderful way to bond with your cat and a treat for humans and cats alike.

Cleaning litter boxes and living spaces: for older kids only

Most cat care is a pleasure, with the notable exception of maintaining litter boxes, which is clearly a chore. The professional consensus on litter box care is that teenagers can take on this responsibility in your family, if you follow a few safety rules. Litter boxes and cat waste can transmit various types of bacteria, worms and parasites that can be particularly infectious for people with compromised immune systems and for young children. Where you keep your cat’s litter boxes is therefore important.

Since little kids like to explore and get into everything, your family’s job is to see to it that litter boxes are safely out of their reach and that they explore elsewhere. Whether you keep the litter box behind a closed door with a pet-door access or in a room sealed off with a childproof gate, make sure your younger children and dogs can’t get to your cat’s litter.

Responsible teenagers can be given the chore of scooping cat litter at least twice daily and completely cleaning out the litter box with a diluted soap or bleach solution regularly. A litter mat will help keep used litter from tracking through your home.

The most important thing is to have fun caring for your cat together. Playing with your cat when you and your kids are relaxing at home is one of life’s great pleasures. Treat yourself to fully enjoying the humans and critters you love by turning off all electronic devices once in a while, and just playing the old-fashioned way.

Going to the pet store with your kids gives them a way to pick out cat toys and treats. Kids who are busy with school and activity schedules might enjoy setting aside regular time to chill out with your cats, particularly if they want some one-on-one cat time in a hectic household. Most cats love being with their humans and will thrive on your kids’ doting attention. Memories like this of being with their families and their pets when they were kids are ones that children will remember for a lifetime.

The writer was a volunteer adoption counselor at King Street Cats in Alexandria for seven years.