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Toddlers & Cats

The Toddler & The Cat

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I have the sweetest, easiest baby ever and lots of people say so, not just me. He is fourteen months old and he is suddenly starting to have a behavior issue. Oh No! We are not used to this around my house, what with Captain Happy who has had no sleeping troubles, no eating troubles, and is happy to play on the floor by himself for thirty minutes at a time.

Advice Smackdown ArchivesThe trouble is we ALSO have a geriatric cat named Oscar. He is 16 years old and has always been very laid back. Up until about six months ago, we had another geriatric cat who made Oscar’s life a living hell for 15 of his 16 years. She would trounce him every chance she got until she up and died. He was bigger and stronger than her, but no matter, he just put up with it. Well, now the baby has decided that he loves Oscar. He loves to pull his tail, poke him in the eyes and hit him with blocks. And the cat just puts up with it. In fact the cat seems to purposely put himself in the line of fire. Gah!

So. We are doing the holding the baby’ hands and saying no very firmly thing. He smiles and just continues to poke at the cat. Then we get firmer and then he cries. Meanwhile the cat maneuvers around and flicks his tail ever so temptingly towards baby. Sheeesh – no sense of self-preservation. Anyhow I know this is not the first behavior we will have to deal with and I am sensing that we are giving off something that makes baby think we (and the cat) are playing a game. Any thoughts on getting my poor cat some peace in his golden years?


So…I’m no feline behavioral specialist by any means, but the detail about your other cat jumped out at me. Before we get into your son’s behavior…is it possible that Oscar simply misses your other cat, despite all the torture and provocation and general pain-in-the-assness? Because really, we have an uber-laid-back cat too, who weighs twice as much as our dog and still allows her to mess with him and his food and warm sunny spots on the floor. And who regularly allows our children to use him as a pillow and has also sat still and even PURRED during less-than-gentle petting sessions with them. But when he’s had enough — really and truly had enough — he WILL get up and move. Occasionally he’ll hiss and lunge at the dog’s head, but even that seems to be more of a LET’S PLAY A GAME, HAMSTERDOG, BRING IT thing than anything really angry or vicious. The kids, on the other hand, have never, EVER been hissed at.

So while I am NOT saying that you should just stop worrying all together and let your kid do whatever to the cat, I am thinking that Oscar really might not be that bothered by your son’s clumsy “affection.” It’s probably in keeping with what he was used to with his departed companion. As long as he’s NOT a risk for say, hissing, snapping or scratching your son, I’d say you CAN relax a little bit and just keep focusing on teaching your son the proper way to approach and treat animals.

Because yes! That’s a Big Thing! For both the animals’ sake and your son’s, because there’s always the chance of him seeing someone ELSE’S cat and assuming that they are all super-docile and tolerant like Oscar. And then he gets hurt when he pokes or pulls. Bad news.

But also! Your son is not cruel or a sociopath in the making. He is simply treating the cat like any other cause-and-effect toy and seeing what happens when he does this or this or that. He is being a typical curious toddler. And the thing is? You sometimes have to say things over and over and over and over and over AND OVER again to typical, curious toddlers before the lesson actually sinks in.

Beyond that: Whenever possible, try try try to avoid using the word “no.” Just because to your son, that word doesn’t really TELL him anything. (Not to mention he probably hears it so often that it’s sooooo easy to tune out.) He wants to play with the cat. He doesn’t want to stop or listen to “no” because he waaaaants to plaaaaay with the caaaaat. So instead of just telling him “no,” tell him how to correctly play with the cat. And even more importantly, show him. Don’t respond to his rough treatment with the same, like yelling and hand-squeezing. He’s far, far too young for that, it’s not sending the right message, and he’s really not doing this deliberately — he just doesn’t yet understand what’s appropriate and what’s not.

With our boys and the pets and the initial pulling/poking/hitting phase, we used the word GENTLE. Over and over again. When we saw rough treatment, we GENTLY took their hands and GENTLY stroked the back of their hand and arm while saying “GENTLE. GENTLE.” Then we helped them GENTLY stroke the pet. Then we heaped on praise. If they mimicked the motion on their own, they got more praise. As their vocabulary expanded, we included words and concepts like “oh that HURTS kitty! we LOVE kitty. show me GENTLE on the kitty.” Sometimes I would ask them to simply “show me GENTLE” when the pets weren’t around, and they would either stroke their own hand or mine. And that’s when you know you’re at least getting through to them, even if they do occasionally still find that cat’s flicking tail to just be OHMYGODSOIRRESTIBLE.

So. Try to swap “gentle” for “no,” in this case. Make a game out of “gentle!” Show him gentle on his body, your body…and on stuffed animals and toys. In his mind, the cat is kind of a toy, so it’s hard for him to figure out why it’s okay to be rough with some stuff and not other things. Usually, CONSEQUENCES are what teach kids this lesson — the toy breaks and you can’t play with it anymore, or the cat scratches you and it hurts. Oscar, bless his sweet kitty heart, isn’t going to help you in that department. But still, your son WILL get the idea at some point, and it will probably sink in sooner if you really focus on showing him HOW to best interact with his pet instead of just demanding he leave the cat alone all the time.

If Oscar does play with toys, like string or balls or catnip mice, or chase after treats, think about teaching the baby to play those games too. Have him dangle the string or toss the treat and make playing with the cat mutually enjoyable, instead of Oscar being an irresistible off-limits fluffball that gets him yelled at. (I know the odds of a geriatric cat “playing” anymore are probably laughably low, but it might be worth pulling out the yarn again, since he seems pretty pleased with even the negative attention from the baby.)

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Molly

    August 27, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    I really like this advice! Mostly because it reinforces to me that we’ve got the right idea when it cones to teaching our 11-month- old how to make nice with our own pets. “Gently” is also our go-to word, both with the animals and our own faces. I think he’s slowly starting to get it. But I can definitely relate with that sinking feeling when you try to use your firm tone of voice and the kid LAUGHS in your face!

  • Jen

    August 27, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    This technique will also translate well if you plan to have more kids. It is exactly what we used to teach our son to be gentle with the new baby — modeling gentle touches on our faces/bodies at first.

  • HereWeGoAJen

    August 27, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    It’s not as big of a deal with a cat as with a dog, but our dog was sweet and gentle until she wasn’t anymore. Nothing bad happened, but now the dogs and the baby live on opposite sides of gates and are never on the floor together, even supervised. Just something to keep in mind.

    Along with gentle, we use “one finger” a lot. (Again, not with our dogs because the baby was too rough and we can’t expect the dogs not to treat her like a puppy.) But “one finger” works really well because there isn’t much damage that can be done with one finger.

  • JB

    August 27, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    This is great advice! *thumbs-up*

  • Bethany

    August 27, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    If the letter writer wants more advice, her local humane society would probably be awesome. I know that my shelter regularly talks with parents about how to help kids learn about animals and how to play nice with them. We really advocate “gentle” and constant constant supervision so that the kid has repetition and consistency in his dealings with the cat.

  • Alison

    August 27, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    I tensed up when I saw the subject of this post, because I really hate how rough some parents let little kids be with animals. But Amalah’s advice is so, so good. Yay!

  • Amy

    August 27, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    I agree with this advice, but I would add that once he has learned the idea of “gentle” and has been taught to play kindly with the cat, any further baby-on-cat violence needs to end in a time out. I started time outs at 12 months with both my kids (am I like the meanest parent ever or what?) and the only thing they got timeouts for at that age was things that could hurt them – like being too rough with the dog (or running with scissors, cooking meth, etc. 🙂 ).

    It’s a good opportunity to teach them how to do time outs (before they turn 2 and all hell breaks loose and they won’t do anything you say) for something that really matters. At first, I stayed with my kids but with minimal interaction as they sat on the bottom step for 60 seconds. Once they were finished, I would say, “It’s not safe or nice to hurt. Be gentle with Max,” and off we’d go to a different activity.

    By the time they were 2, they’d go to TO on their own. It made the terrible 2s a lot easier, that they were in the habit of taking time outs. The 3s are still hard though, what’s up with that?

  • Marnie

    August 27, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    It is really important to teach the gentle, but it’s also important to remember that cats and dogs have very pointy ends that can hurt, even accidentally, so even when you think they’ve both been taught to play nicely together, never leave them alone together in a room and always supervise any interaction between them.

    We used “gentle,” too, for both the kid and the dog. It worked really well because it gave us a word that was associated with positive behavior that we could then reward. (I know some people don’t like their kids compared to dogs, but really, there are a lot of similar concepts there!: consistency, positive reinforcment…) We also taught the dog that his bed was his safe spot – if he didn’t want to be bothered, he could go there and I wouldn’t let the little one near him. If he remained in the middle of the living room floor, I knew he just wanted the attention.

  • LauraL

    August 27, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    Yep, we use the ol’ “gentle” method, too. And one thing I’ve noticed with our children/cats and the children/cats of friends, even the hissiest, snarliest cats will let small children (at least, their OWN small children) get away with holy hell. One of our cats can be truly, truly feral in the right situation, but she lets our 8-year-old drag her around, carry her like a pillow or blanket, haul her away from food … Crazy.

  • JenVegas

    August 27, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    When I was a terrible two we had a couple of cats and there are pictures of me crawling around the backyard after them, chewing on their tails and even sometimes eating their dry food. Bless those cats they never once tried to rip my face off.
    I am expecting at the end of November and I just started wondering how I’m going to handle teaching my own kid and my own ornery, old cats to play nicely when the time comes.

  • SweetBarbarella

    August 27, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    I think Oscar’s patience might be due to a bit of understanding that your son is still just learning what’s ‘proper animal behavior’. I remember trying to teach my baby brother to be ‘gentle’ with my older and absurdly patient cat; she put up with everything! At least she did until the day she decided he was old enough to know better (prob around age 3?). One, rather gentle, swat from her and he never tried to put his fingers in her eyes again.

  • Susan

    August 28, 2010 at 11:11 am

    We also use “gentle” with our 21 month old, and not just for the cats – it works for when he’s pointing out our facial features (i.e., trying to yank out my teeth), drinking from an open cup, playing around smaller toddlers/babies, picking tomatoes from our garden, etc. For him it’s a cue word that he needs to slow down, take it easy, not be such a toddler firestorm.

    When he became fascinated with the cat’s “e-yahs”, I would gently rub his ear and say “Ear!” at the same time he was trying to yank on the cat’s ear, so he made the connection that the kitty can feel what he was doing the same way he could feel what mommy was doing.

    We generally try to stay away from the word No all together – if he’s getting into something he’s not supposed to, I’ll say “oh, not for Ryan!” and try to distract him with a different activity/noisy toy. The best discipline technique I learned while teaching fourth grade was to tell the kid what to do – instead of “Stop bothering your neighbor”, say “please get out your math book and turn to page 43” or whatever.: It works with toddlers, too.

  • Wallydraigle

    August 28, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    After my daughter first started expressing interest in the cat, I swear all I did for six months was dart across the house screaming, “GENTLE! GENTLE! GENTLLLLLLLE!” I thought it would NEVER sink in. And then… it just did, one day. Every time she was too rough with the cat, I’d take her hand and run it across something (usually not the cat, since the cat was long gone by then) and say, “Gentle, gentle gentle,” over and over again. It took months, but by about 15 months she was mostly gentle with the cat, or at least hesitated before grabbing giant lumps of fur. Now, at 22 months, I can hardly remember the last time she made a grab at the cat. It’s a slow process, but it does work eventually. Bonus: if you have more kids while your baby is still small, the same lessons apply. Thanks to the cat lessons, we have NEVER had a problem with my older daughter being too rough with the baby (except for that one time I heard the baby choking and gagging and gasping and turned around to find my daughter trying to give her “MEDICINE! MEDICINE! MEDICINE, EMMY!” with a toy dropper).

  • Margie

    August 28, 2010 at 11:00 pm

    I’d like to add something that addresses a periphery worry that the writer might be expressing, which is one that I was just worrying about with my 16 month old. She hit me a couple of times, and when I first was figuring out what to do (because she is a very easy, happy girl – I was unprepared and horrified!), I now realize that when I was addressing the behavior I was looking in her face for some clue that she understood and felt sorry. Luckily, a friend who has cared for many sweet toddlers pointed out that they’re too young to expect that, and what works for her is addressing it firmly and concretely (like many others have suggested), then appropriately redirecting – rather than looking for understanding. It has been really liberating to let go of the step where I agonize that she doesn’t seem to be getting it. It’s a highly recommended mama mental shift, if you will.

  • Cheryl S.

    August 30, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    Excellent advice! We used both “gentle” and “nice” when my hubby brought home a kitten when my daughter was almost 2. She’s 5 now and I still have to occasionally tell her not to torture the cat, but for the most part, she “got it” pretty quickly. She and Boots are now best buddies!

  • annie

    September 8, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Great advice from Amalah and the comments!  The only thing I want to add is that I have a 3yo and while things will and do improve in this area and of course, you have to keep working at it….make sure your expectations are realistic.  I read that a child cannot be reliably, consistently gentle with a pet until the age of 5.  At 3, our son is 100x gentler with our dog than he was at 2, but he has a ways to go and still needs those reminders daily.  I beat myself up about it for months thinking that I must be doing something wrong that my son keeps pushing/yelling/chasing her, but the thing is that kids experiment, they lack impulse control, and they need time to learn compassion.  So keep your expectations low, keep plugging away, and thank goodness your cat is patient!

  • Jessica

    October 21, 2014 at 2:43 pm

    I have a 17 month old and a very similar cat.  We have two cats.  One is smart enough to run away from my daughter.  The other will let her sit on him, hit him, pull his tail, etc.  I started with this method (we use “be nice”) at a VERY young age.  My husband thought I was crazy trying to show her to pet the cat and “be nice” when she was like 3 months old, but one day she surprised me and started petting me when I said to “be nice.” I use the same method whenever she hits or pinches me and she will start petting me – ha.  

    Anyway, despite starting at a young age and despite the fact that she knows how to pet nicely, she still tries to torture the cat.  I know she is just too young to control her impulses and I try not to lose my cool when she jumps on the cat and rides him like a horse (earlier this week), but I am afraid she will get hurt.  The cat has never shown any sign of aggression towards her, but one time she is going to jump on him and hurt him and he may lash out – even accidentally.  He is an animal.  Plus I don’t want her to think she can do that to all cats.  I know my other cat would not put up with it (and thankfully he usually removes himself from the situation).   

    I continue to tell her to be nice and praise her over and over whenever she pets him (or me) nicely.  I also try to tell her that it hurts the kitty, but I’m not sure if she gets what that means yet.  I’ve also started removing the cat and taking him to a part of the house blocked by the safety gate whenever she starts being mean to him.  I feel bad for the cat because he was just trying to take a nap and I remove him from his bed, but I’m hoping she’ll realize that if she is rough with him, he gets taken away.  I guess it will just take time!