Help, My Son's Afraid of Our Cat!

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While most of the questions we’re asked are about cat behavior, sometimes we get a question about humans. In this case, a child’s reaction to the family’s new kitten. Kristen S. writes:

I just rescued a seven week old, beautiful male kitten that was trapped in a fence. Luca is now an amazing, affectionate, trusting little kitten. He loves and trusts me so much but I have a 12 year old son who is nervous about him. How can I help my son to like Luca. He sees the kitten bite and scratch me but I try to let him know he’s a baby and doesn’t know better and is just playing. I also let him know it doesn’t hurt. I really want my two babies to love each other

Kristen, our expertise is with cats, not children, but the general training concepts are the same. :) Children are not logical. You can't always reason with them. They learn by association, so you have to associate good things with the kitten. This method is often used in cases with fearful children much more fearful than your son. There's a good overview at the following link: https://www.tagteach.com/What_is_TAGteach . 

Here's a video that illustrates tag teaching with a child who was deathly afraid of the water. Each time he achieved the tag point the teacher gave him, he was rewarded with an immediate click followed by a Skittles candy. The timing of the click is the critical point of reinforcement.

It doesn't have to be a click. It could be the word "good" stated in the same tone each time, but it needs to be an audible reinforcement that indicates that the child has done what was asked of him or her correctly.

I know this sounds a bit odd. It's a teaching method most people only think of using with animals (referred to as “clicker training”), but it works with people too. Try asking your son to pet Luca while he's on your lap. Make it casual. If he so much as touches the kitten, say "good" and offer him a candy from a bowl he can't reach unless you offer. He'll have no idea that you're training him but he'll slowly begin to associate success and joy with the kitten.

The second thing is to begin conditioning Luca to not bite and scratch you. When playing with him, redirect any aggressive tendencies toward his toys and away from your hands. Many people train their kittens to think of their hands as toys. It's cute, right? Well, it turns out to not be so cute when they're full grown and biting your hand because you've basically taught them it's okay. Then they become confused because what was once acceptable is now creating a negative reaction. Begin now and all three of you will have a much happier time together.