Kids usually want to be fast friends with any animal they meet for the first time. Younger children assume all animals want to be their friend and are known to make the mistake of believing the feelings are mutual. Sometimes they even become aggressive with their attention and run at a cat with loud voices and grabbing hands. This method of greeting is obviously not a way to win a feline's friendship. In fact, the cat could become defensive and lash out at the child, creating a no-win situation for the child and the cat.
It's important to teach our children how to appropriately greet unfamiliar cats when we're introducing them. I mean, would you want to rushed and manhandled? Not me. Unless, of course, I wanted to be rushed and manhandled by someone cute -- probably my husband. Whatever the case, let's teach our kids to respect cats as mutual beings and give them the space they need to get to know us before we start in with the physical affection.
1. Always ask
If the cat belongs to someone, always ask before you pet -- and also inquire if the cat prefers to be petted in any certain manner. All cats are different.
2. Approach gently
Kneel or squat and extend an index finger, cat-nose level, toward the kitty, without shoving the finger into the cat's face. Cats are territorial and explore their world through scent. Allow the cat to lean forward and examine your scent. Do not wiggle your fingers, make sudden moves or speak in an elevated voice -- just quietly hold your position.
3. Take kitty's lead
If the cat wants to interact, he'll rub his cheek or head against your finger. Also take a cue from his tail: If it's pointed upwards, he's content. If it's horizontal to the ground, he's feeling neutral. Both are positive signs.
4. Pet gently
Always approach petting a cat with a gentle hand, especially if the cat is unfamiliar. According to Dr. Marty Becker, most cats enjoy being petting in four spots on their bodies:
–Base of chin, especially where the jawbone connects to the skull.
–Base of ears.
–Cheeks behind the whiskers.
–Base of tail.
I have also found success when petting a cat starting at the top of the head and continuing toward the base of the tail. You know when cats raise their bottom when you reach the base of the tail? Dr. Becker calls that "elevator butt." Ha!
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5. Pay attention to body language
During the greeting and petting, always keep a close eye on kitty's body language. A fixed stare, horizontal ears or down-turned tail could be signs of aggression. If you see or sense the cat's patience waning, stop petting him immediately. For more detail on decoding cats' body language, please see Catster's handy guide.
In general, the more calm and patient the child can be, the better chance she has at making a connection with a cat. Respect means everything -- for humans and cats alike. Let's teach our children well and pave the way for feline friendships.