By Dr. Marty Becker | vetstreet.com
Q. When my granddaughter comes over, my cats go into hiding. Is there any way to teach them to accept being petted by her?
A. They might learn to accept her if you're patient. To give it the best chance, you need to teach your granddaughter how to approach, pet and pick up cats in a way that makes them feel unthreatened. If you accomplish that - easier with an older child than a toddler! - you're halfway there. The other part of the equation is your cats, who are ideally friendly, tolerant and interested in food.
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Set up a routine with your cats when your granddaughter is not around, getting them used to sitting calmly in your lap for treats and gentle petting. Remember that cats are most likely to tolerate petting along the chin line, and are most likely to become agitated when touched on their bellies. Stick to the petting that makes your cats the calmest and most comfortable. If your cats enjoy brushing, you can do that too.
When your cats recognize that being invited onto your lap is always a safe, enjoyable experience, have your granddaughter sit next to you quietly while you gently, loosely restrain your cat - never try to hold a cat who wants to leave. Let your granddaughter offer your cats treats, on an outstretched palm, until the cats are used to her presence. Once your cat is used to having your granddaughter's hands close to his face, have your granddaughter pet your cat along the chin in your lap. Over time you should be able to put the cat in your granddaughter's lap for quiet time together with special treats. Praise the petting and build slowly on your success in keeping your cats happy and relaxed. Using a room diffuser for a pheromone product like Feliway may help the cat remain calm.
And, of course, make sure your granddaughter doesn't chase or try to grab your cats. That will never convince your cats to enjoy her attention, and it may get your granddaughter scratched or bitten.
Assuming your cats are comfortable being picked up by you, they should eventually tolerate your granddaughter doing the same. Make sure she knows how to pick up a cat: Slide one hand under the belly, then use the other to scoop the legs into a supported position. (Cats don't like being dangled.) Then she should support the cat's body against her chest. Again, be sure she knows that if the cat gets unhappy and wants to leave, she should set him down or just let him go.
Before your let your granddaughter pick up your cat, make sure the cat's nails are trimmed, and make an effort to keep the cat's face angled away from the child's face when she is holding it, to avoid bites and scratches if the cat panics. You can always back up a step and return to sitting and petting, but you can't take back a nasty bite or scratch.
If none of this seems reasonable because your cats barely allow you to pet them, you will probably have to accept things as they are. You simply can't force a cat to do what he doesn't want to, and if you try, you will almost always make matter worse. Keep trying if you can, because it's worth it: Pets are good for children.
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