The housecat is the most popular pet in the United States, and many cat lovers cite the feline's independent nature as one of the reasons they chose a cat as a pet [source: ASPCA]. Cats are certainly one of the easier pets to care for; they don't require much grooming, take well to litter training and can be left with minimal supervision for extended periods of time as long as there's plenty of fresh water, food and clean litter. Watching a cat's natural behavior can teach children a lot about responsibility, too. It's every parent's goal to raise a self-reliant, dependable child, and your cat can be an excellent teacher and role model. In this article, we'll explore cats' natural behaviors and how caring for one can help instill a strong sense of responsibility in a child.
Cats can't tell time, but they can stick to a schedule. Naturally nocturnal, felines generally eat, sleep and play around the same times of the day each day. Cats also tend to adapt their schedules around those of the household, so any changes in your family's daily routine can lead to stress. Keeping a cat on a routine is also valuable in that it'll be easier to anticipate when he'll be hungry, in the mood to play or wanting to be left alone. Explain to your child the positive impact that a daily routine has for cats, and ask your child to help manage the feeding or play schedule. Your child might begin to see how keeping up with a schedule is beneficial and how being responsible means making enough time to care for pets, family and one's self, too.
The old myth that cats have nine lives may not be true, but cats are a resilient species. Most housecats live an average of 14 to 20 years, so when you introduce a kitten or a healthy adult feline into your home, your child will most likely have a friend for nearly all of his or her upbringing [source: Church].
This long-term commitment will teach your child valuable lessons about relationships and the reward of being a responsible pet owner: a long life with a loving cat. Your child's conscientious feeding, playing and brushing will help keep the cat in good health, and being present for both routine and illness-related veterinary visits may help kids better understand medical care by letting them experience it as a patient's caregiver.
Children who grow up with a cat will also observe how their actions can impact how others view and treat them -- being consistently quiet and gentle with a cat will most likely lead to winning his trust and affection, whereas making sudden noises or movements may make him skittish and keep him away long after the potential threat is over. Children who grow up with pets are more apt to be empathetic and compassionate toward all living things as adults.
Although it's impossible to know how many stray or feral cats are living in the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that as many as 70 million are roaming about, and millions are euthanized each year [source: ASPCA]. Responsible pet owners can do their part to solve the issue in their community by getting their cat spayed or neutered. Veterinarians recommend that kittens be sterilized between eight weeks and six months of age -- before a female can go into heat [source: ASPCA]. In addition to keeping the pet population low, sterilized cats are at less risk of developing cancer and are less likely to spray their territory.
Cats do contribute to the circle of life by providing pest control. However, in many ways a cat is just a tiny tiger, so don't expect him to understand the difference between a pesky mouse and an endangered bird -- it's all prey to him. Cats are often blamed for declining bird populations, so teach your child to do his part for the local ecosystem by keeping your cats indoors or in an enclosed outdoor area where they can't get to any of your local feathered friends.
Cats have personal hygiene down to a science; their anatomy is made to perform all sorts of self-cleaning functions, and so most cats do not need regular baths like dogs. A cat's tongue acts like a comb with hundreds of tiny barbs that collect hair and particles as a cat licks his fur. A cat also uses his paws like a washcloth, licking the pads before wiping it over his face.
Most cats spend up to half their waking hours grooming themselves and any other felines (or dogs, or people) willing to sit still for it, which makes for a very thorough cleaning. Although you probably don't want your child spending half her day in the bathroom, your cat's grooming habits can be an example of how good hygiene is a must for all of us animals.
In addition to meticulous personal hygiene, cats can also be picky about how their meals are presented. Ask your child to be responsible for ensuring kitty's dining area passes inspection -- after all, she wouldn't want to eat out of dirty dishes, either.
Being responsible doesn't have to be boring. Children can learn a lot about taking care of their entire physical and mental being, including the part that needs to have fun, by spending time with a feline.
Play is a necessity for kittens to learn how to hunt and defend themselves in nature, and these instincts don't disappear just because a cat is domesticated. When your cat bats at a toy or jumps in the air to swat at a fly (or bracelet, or nothing at all), he might appear to be goofing off. However, these actions reinforce skills that any cat would need to survive in the wild -- like Mr. Miyagi having Daniel "wax on, wax off," they're actually building muscle and reflexes. Likewise, when children play games with friends or engage in activities like arts or sports, they learn a variety of life skills, from teamwork and creativity to fitness and problem solving.
Encourage your kids to spend time playing with your cat, too. Both cats and children need the mental and physical exercise that playtime provides, and the bond created will help your child grow into a caring, responsible adult.
HowStuffWorks looks at a new report from the American Association of Feline Practitioners about how to feed your cat for optimal health.
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Factors Determining a Cat's Personality." (August 15, 2011) http://www.aspca.org/Pet-care/ask-the-expert/ask-the-expert-dog-and-cat-behavior/factors-determing-a-cats-personality.aspx
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Nighttime Activity in Cats." (August 15, 2011) http://www.aspcabehavior.org/articles/27/Nighttime-Activity-in-Cats.aspx
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Pet Statistics." (August 15, 2011) http://www.aspca.org/about-us/faq/pet-statistics.aspx
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Spay-Neuter." (August 15, 2011) http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/spay-neuter.aspx
- American Society for the Preventions of Cruelty to Animals. "Why Cats Groom So Much." (August 15, 2011) http://www.aspca.org/Pet-care/ask-the-expert/ask-the-expert-dog-and-cat-behavior/why-cats-groom-so-much.aspx
- Chua, Jasmin Malik. "Use Eco-Friendly Cat Litter" Planet Green. Jan. 18, 2008. (August 15, 2011) http://planetgreen.discovery.com/home-garden/use-ecofriendly-cat-litter.html
- Church, Christine. "House Cat: How to Keep Your Indoor Cat Sane and Sound." Howell Book House. 2005.
- Humane Society of the United States. "HSUS Pet Overpopulation Estimates." (August 15, 2011) http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/pet_overpopulation/facts/overpopulation_estimates.html