If you have a cat at home with your toddler, you’ve probably asked yourself many times why your toddler is mean to the cat and how to handle it. Hitting, tail pulling, chasing, and squishing are all behaviors commonly seen in interactions between toddlers and cats, but when should you worry?
In most cases, toddlers are mean to the cat because they are trying to play with the cat and simply do not understand that the cat is a living thing that might not want to play. Once toddlers learn that a certain action will create a response, they will do it over and over again while experimenting and testing their limits.
Let’s look at some of the reasons your child might act this way towards your cat and discuss some options for addressing this behavior.
Why is my toddler mean to our cat?
Most of the time, toddlers are not intentionally trying to hurt the animal. They want to interact with the cat but they have not yet learned the self-control and knowledge they need to make good choices in these interactions. We should, therefore, always supervise toddler/pet interactions, correcting inappropriate behavior and modeling gentle touch and play.
Let’s check out the three most common reasons for your toddler to act out around the cat.
Toddlers are constantly experimenting with their environment
Toddlers learn through hands-on exploration. They hit, kick, grab, pull, and throw objects just to see what will happen. If they like what they see or hear, they do it again and again.
At first, a child may view a cat as just another toy – except this toy moves and makes noise on its own. It also reacts in surprising, and often funny, ways. This makes the child view the cat as a fascinating and enticing plaything.
Toddlers will often experiment with different touches just to see what the cat will do. They want to get a reaction, so gentle petting may quickly evolve into more forceful hitting and grabbing. Depending on the cat’s temperament, this could have various consequences. Maybe the cat will just meow and put up with it, or perhaps it will bat at the child to try and make it stop. Other cats will run away. Some may decide to fight back with scratching and biting. If the toddler likes the reaction, he will likely try to make it happen again.
For example, a child may enjoy getting a cat to “play” by swinging their hands at it. The cat responds by batting back at the child. The child thinks this is funny and continues the “game,” failing to recognize that the cat does not actually want to play.
It is common for toddlers to test their limits
Eventually, the child will realize that the cat is not a toy but another living being.
However, this does not always make the behavior stop. Just like with their parents and siblings, toddlers often feel the need to test their limits with pets. They want to know just how loud they can yell in their cat’s ear before it runs away or how long they can lay on the cat before mommy comes to the rescue. They want to know what is acceptable and what is not. They have not yet developed an aversion to harming others and need to test their limits to find out what is right and what is wrong.
It is part of their learning process.
Toddlers are still learning self-control and empathy
Even as a child begins to learn gentle and kind ways to interact with a cat, they may still randomly strike out at the animal for no apparent reason.
Toddlers have little to no impulse control and, when they are excited or bored, they may hit, kick, throw objects, or scream despite having been taught more appropriate behaviors. Research shows that most children start to develop better self-control between the ages of 3 and 9.
Toddlers also have “big” emotions which they often don’t know how to process. Anger and frustration frequently lead to hitting, kicking, or biting. They might even be fearful and clingy. But happiness and excitement may also prompt these actions. Therefore, even as toddlers are learning to be gentle, they may still act without thinking and still require supervision in dealing with animals.
How do I stop my toddler from being mean to the cat?
Teaching your child to be kind and gentle with your cat can be a lengthy process. Even as they learn, they are likely to forget or get caught up in their emotions and act without thinking. When both your toddler and your cat have fairly free reign of the house, it can be difficult to closely supervise every single moment of interaction. Ideally, you don’t want to keep them separated behind closed doors either.
So, what can you do?
Here are some steps you can take to help your toddler and your cat learn to live together.
My child won’t leave the cat alone
Just because your toddler wants to play, doesn’t mean your cat does. But young children don’t understand that and will frequently terrorize the poor animal anytime they are near. The best thing you can do for your cat, in this case, is to provide a safe space for the cat to escape when they want to be left alone.
Some examples of safe spaces are a cat tree, access to tops of furniture, or a gated off section of the house. Make sure your cat trees and furniture are secured to the wall and the lowest shelves or ladder are removed in case your child gets the notion to try to climb up after the cat. If your cat is older and unable to jump or climb well, consider a baby gate with a cat door.
What if your toddler is chasing the cat
Cats don’t like to be chased – although this may seem like great fun to young children.
For very young toddlers, it is best to redirect – “Kitty doesn’t want to be chased, but you can chase me.” As they grow older and more understanding, you can try explaining that the cat is scared and wants to hide. You can also model and practice approaching a cat slowly with your child.
When your child is hitting the cat
It is a good idea to practice gentle petting with your toddler. Watch for signs that your cat is in the mood to be touched and invite your child to sit with you near the cat.
Model appropriate petting and use the words “gentle” and “nice hands.” Invite your child to try petting nicely. If necessary, guide them with hand-over-hand teaching. Comment on how happy the cat is, listen for purring, and praise your child for being gentle.
Later, you can use the words “gentle” and “nice hands” as a reminder when your child is near the cat or starts hitting the cat. Repeated modeling and practice may be necessary. Continue to offer praise when your child remembers to be gentle. If your child continues to hit, despite reminders, you may need to redirect your child and move the cat to its safe space. You can always try again later.
What if your toddler is throwing things at the cat
Toddlers like to throw things and it is a skill that they need to learn and practice. However, they also need to know that certain things are not meant for throwing and that there are certain times and places when throwing is not appropriate. If your child throws something and it accidentally hits the cat, you should point out that the cat was hurt and scared – use it as a moment to teach empathy. Then redirect your child’s need to throw things by inviting a game of catch or bean bag toss.
If your child is throwing things at the cat in anger, you should, once again, encourage empathy, but also try to help your child work through his feelings. Direct punishment may have a negative effect because your child may blame the cat for his being punished and lash out at the animal again later.
However, you may consider removing the object which was thrown, especially if it is a continuous occurrence with the same object.
My 2-year-old is mean to the cat
As your toddler grows older, his understanding of right and wrong will grow as well. It will also become easier to discuss empathy with your child and to teach him various ways in which a cat can be injured. However, these things will take time for your child to fully comprehend.
A 2-year-old still has very poor impulse control. Aggressive behavior also tends to peak around age 2 as they struggle to find ways to express themselves with limited language skills. During this time, it is important to help your child through his emotions and to consistently model appropriate ways to interact with your cat.
My 3-year-old is mean to the cat
At 3-years-old, your child is beginning to develop better self-control but still has some ways to go before he can be trusted alone with your cat. However, your child has stronger language skills and can now be encouraged to use his words to express strong emotions. This is also a great period for modeling and practicing appropriate interactions with your cat. Try inventing some pretend vet play with stuffed animals to encourage care and empathy.
My 4-year-old is mean to the cat
Your 4-year-old may be ready to take on some simple responsibilities in helping to care for your cat. Try having your child help with feeding and filling the water bowl. Your child may also enjoy brushing your cat – another opportunity to teach careful and slow motions in an activity that the cat may also enjoy. Taking part in the care of a pet may help your child form a deeper bond with the animal and be more likely to treat your cat with kindness.
What does it mean if a child is cruel to animals?
While young children are still learning to treat animals humanely, it can be difficult to tell if their actions are simply “normal toddler behavior” or if they are indicative of something worse. Some parents may worry that their child’s cruel treatment of the family pet may be a warning sign of future criminal behavior. Research has consistently reported that most criminals have some history of animal cruelty. But at what point should we worry?
Although more research has been done regarding animal cruelty in older children, there are some indications that a toddler’s behavior is not normal. The first things a parent must consider are the intensity, frequency, and motivation behind a child’s acts of aggression towards animals. Is the child causing significant harm to the animal (bearing in mind the size of the animal – a kitten is more likely to be accidentally injured by a toddler than an adult cat)? Is the child frequently seeking out the animal to cause harm or simply reacting when the animal is already in the room? Does the child stop when prompted or redirected?
Motivation can be difficult to determine in a toddler, but animal cruelty in very young children is most often motivated by some form of curiosity, as discussed above. However, the likelihood of actual animal abuse increases if a child has been exposed to violence. Witnessing abuse or being a victim of abuse may cause children to act out similarly against their pets. If you know or suspect that a child has been exposed to violent acts, it is important to watch for these signs and get help early to help the child work through their trauma.