“Jack! Let go of Kit Kat!” That is my rather exhausted and exasperated statement as I wonder why the cats don’t run away when he starts heading for them. How in the world do you teach a 1-year-old to be gentle with animals? As a first time mother I was determined when Jack was born that I was not going to let him pinch, grab, ride, step on, or do anything else that my dogs and cats wouldn’t enjoy. Turns out that is easier said than done. So now the question is how do I maintain my own sanity while preventing my cats from being tortured by a one-year-old.
I admit that with a background in behavior, I was sure we would all live in peaceful harmony with me blissfully teaching Jack gentle touches (haha, yeah right). When Jack was a baby and immobile we were fine. I just had to keep the animals away from him. Now that he is walking, running, and grabbing, it is a whole other ball game. He is also very independent and doesn’t want help. He likes to do things his own way and in his own time. The cats are his new favorite toy and pinching and pulling is his new favorite activity.
We moved to a new house recently and even though the cats now have an upstairs and a basement, they prefer to remain on the main floor where us humans also spend most of our time. I admit I was lax in watching Jack with the cats because they are able to leave the room whereas the dogs can’t. The problem I discovered is the cats don’t leave the room. In fact, they do the exact opposite. They flop helplessly on the floor and meow for me to intervene.
Jack has also decided that pinching, squishing, and tail pulling are fun ways to spend his time. I decided quickly that I needed to change tactics when I heard my cat meowing and turned around to see that Jack had managed to get his hands on her tail and had no plans to let go. As I quickly pried Jacks fingers off of her, and pushed away visions of tail amputations that danced in my head, I decided to try something else.
- Give the cats an escape route. Since the cats actually refuse to move when Jack is headed toward them, we set up the cat tree on the main floor so at least they could escape upward. I reward them with treats when they are up on the cat tree periodically.
- Polite behavior applies to everyone. I am more likely than anyone else to tolerate Jack jumping on me, pinching, and playing rough with me because I know he is a toddler and is simply behaving like one. I have had to adjust my response to him. If he bites, pinches, or hits, I immediately walk away. So far that has been working, he doesn’t do those things as often any more.
- Practice “gentle”. We started this when he was an infant and he started grabbing my favorite neckless and yanking on it. I would hold his hand and let him touch it with one finger. Somewhere in his little baby brain this seems to have stuck because he will approach the cats with one finger Then, if he lets me help, he gets to pet the kitty (or puppy). Often though that one finger quickly becomes a hand grab so I have to watch carefully. We also practice this with touch and feel books on the rare occasion he sits down with me to look at a book.
- Give Jack another outlet. Stuffed animals are great for him to squish and drag around the house, so I keep a lot of those scattered around to redirect him when he starts acting like he might grab a kitty.
- Give yourself a break. This is the most important rule. If I need a break from being referee, then I take one. The cats can hang out in another room for a while, or Jack and I can head out for a walk. I am pretty sure I put this in every post involving pets that I write because it is that important!
I use the same guidelines with my dogs, but I admit I was much less watchful with the cats due to their ability to leave the room. My cats are really very tolerant and good with Jack, and I want to keep it that way. As a veterinarian with a special interest in behavior, helping families build positive relationships with their pets is an important part of what I do. I am reminded with Jack, that there’s not a one size fits all approach to this and I need to adjust my plan as Jack grows.
Stephanie and her family moved to Indianapolis from Texas in 2015. She and her husband John have been happily married since 2010. They have a one year old son named Jack. They share their home with two dogs, Torchy and Rusty, and two cats, Timmy and Kit Kat. Stephanie has a BS in Animal Behavior from Southwestern University and a DVM from Texas A&M University. She is an associate veterinarian at VCA Animal Hospital o f Plainfield and has a special interest in veterinary behavior. Stephanie is passionate about being a wife, a mom, and a veterinarian. She loves spending time playing with her son, cooking with her husband, training and playing with their two dogs, and snuggling with her cats on the couch. When taking time for herself, she enjoys yoga, running, reading, and the occasional massage . The views expressed in this article are Stephanie's and do not necessarily reflect the views of her employer.