A lot of humane education and animal safety material focuses on dogs. This is understandable because our canine friends are more likely to come into contact with more people than any other pet. We take our dogs out for walks, have them accompany us to pet supply stores, take them when we visit other people's home, include them in our vacations, and they tend to be out when visitors come to our homes. It makes sense that we'd want to focus a lot of education about being safe around dogs when so many children will interact with both their own dogs, and dogs that belong to other people.
It's quite a bit more difficult to find material on cat safety. According to the Association of Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), cats are the number one pet in the United States, with an estimated 74 million cats being kept as pets and out numbering dogs by 4 million. Cats may not pose as great a danger as dogs since they generally are kept in the house, and often will hide if they feel threatended. However cats can defend themselves if they feel a need to, and their teeth and claws can cause a lot of damage to a child.
Parents and humane educators should spend some time speaking to children about how to behave around cats, not only so that children are safe, but also to allow the cat to feel safe and free from harassment in his own home.
The first thing a child should know is that cats get to choose if they want to play or be petted. If a cat walks away or runs and hides, the cat is letting you know that he want's to be left alone. Not only is this a great cat safety message, but it is also a great way to help children understand about respecting others!
Children should also know that cats can vocalize when they are angry or annoyed. A cat will hiss or even growl when they are upset, and just like a dog growling, a cat is warning you to leave her alone or else. It's important to listen to this audible warning, because the next step most likely will be the cat biting or clawing in defense.
Just like a dog cats should not be disturbed when eating or sleeping, and people should never use their hands in play. Cats are predatory creatures, and during play they use hunting behaviors including use of their claws and teeth to grab their "prey". Using your hands is a really good way to get your cat to unintentionally hurt you. When playing with a cat a toy should always be used. A really great toy to use with a cat is a fishing pole toy where a toy hangs from a strong off of a stick. Not only will this keep your skin safe, but cats love the unpredictability of the toy moving back and forth and up and down.
Cats don't use as much body language as dogs do, but what they do display is important for children to know. One important cat posture is unfortunately not well known by most people. When cats are on their backs with all four feet in the air it is not an invitation for a belly rub. This is a defensive position where all five of a cat's weapons (teeth and 4 sets of claws) are available to use on an opponent. Many people are bitten or scratched by cats because they make the mistake of reaching down to pet a cat's belly.
I'll post more tips and information about cat safety in my next blog.