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Won’t Leave the Cat Alone

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Attention Seeking By Being Aggressive With Cat

Does your tot terrorize the family cat?  Do you find yourself constantly telling your kid to put down kitty? It’s a common problem.

Sure children take an interest in pets and love having a playmate. However, if you’re constantly having to remind and nag your child about leaving the cat alone, it’s not the cat that is interesting to your child, it’s your attention to the matter.

The child’s motivation behind this behavior is not to play with the cat, but to play with you!  It’s your verbal nattering on that assures the child your are engaged with them (albeit it negatively). After all, if the child chose to leave the cat alone, they would be ignored.  Need some of  mom’s attention? Simple – pull the cat’s tail. She can’t ignore that behavior.  She’s sure to talk about that!

The trick to bringing about a change is to ignore all “cat-attacking behaviors.”  If the cat antics no longer work in getting mom’s attention, the child will abandon the behavior.  No sense getting scratched for nothing.

However, if we fail to address their real need to feel some sense of connection with you, they’ll just find some other shenanigans to get into.  For young children distraction and re-direction to another activity or conversation with you works best.  Continue to build up the relationship through meaningful interactions.

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

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14 Responses to “Won’t Leave the Cat Alone”

  1. Kim Stevens

    I disagree. Sometimes it is just about the cat. One of my 5-year-old daughters loves to smell the cat’s fur and pick the cat up. It is not about attention from a parent, it is because she loves to touch the cat. Sometimes you need to protect the cat. We don’t yell or make a big fuss, we tell her it is about mutual respect and the cat is a part of our family and deserves respect too. The behavior is lessening over time, but I assure you, it’s not about getting attention from anyone but our poor tormented cat. She is a very good sport, but licks her forelegs bare from the stress. We make tons of time for our twins with weekly family fun and a family game night and we also pay a sitter so each of them can have 90 minutes alone with Mom every week. They are spoiled with love and attention and also stuff (thanks to grandparents), but still we need to protect the cat.

    • Leanne Robinson

      Me too. I only work on the weekends and only clean and shower after the kids are in bed. They get my full attention from the moment they wake til their eyes close, AND we co-sleep. Lack of attention has nothing to do with why my 4 year old insists on carrying the new cat around all day. It’s pretty short-sighted to attribute a behavior many kids have to one single thing.

  2. Alyson Schafer

    Yes, sometimes it is just about the cat – if you are not nagging reminding and getting involved, if the behaviour does not make you feel irritated, worried or annoyed – then we can deduce that child’s motivation is not parental attention. In these cases, try a logical consequence which helps the child tie freedoms and responsibilities together: ” if you would like the cat’s company then you need to not touch him, if you can’t be with him and leave him alone, the cat will have to go” Place the cat in a crate or another room. Alternatively you can have the child move away ( to their bedroom) but in my experience that will just fuel a power struggle. Sad as it is, sometimes children and animals don’t live well together and families have to make a tough decision.

  3. Jennifer

    My kids, 3 and 4, both seem obsessed with our cat. They won’t leave her alone! Our neighbor, a 6 year old, comes over just to see the cat. Many times he just comes in and walks around the house looking for our cat. If he can’t find her, he’ll ask me to find her and he won’t leave until I do! Anyways, I do not think the kids interest in the cat has anything to do with wanting attention from me. They are just interested in the cat. Most kids are interested in animals. That is why zoos and petting farms are so popular.

  4. Alyson Schafer

    Hi Jennifer,
    Yes – I agree. Not all interest in animals is for the purpose of attention-seeking. To determine if the child’s goal is attention, you must ask a series of questions:
    1) Does this behaviour make me feel irritated or annoyed?
    2) Do I typically respond to this behaviour by nagging? reminding? or doing for the child something they can do for themselves?
    3) Does the child stop temporarily when I give them attention or correct them? Do they resume the behaviour again at the same intensity?

    If you answer YES to these questions – the child’s goal is attention. If you answer NO – then they are just interested in animals! I hope this helps.


  5. Laura

    Hey there Alyson,

    Thanks for this insight!!!! It truly has triggered me and I have to say it is about attention for my step-son based on other behaviors I/we see him. The only thing that concerns me is that he is almost 11 yrs old. From this website and others I have read, this appears to be problem with toddlers. What do you make of this? It’s a bit of a multi-dimensional issue. He is one of two children, the other has special needs and is low functioning and requires a lot of care and attention. To me this is behavior that likely came about due to his personal situation of living with a brother with needs. The only thing is, I find he does get a lot of attention including the good kind so I’m somewhat perplexed.


  6. Alyson Schafer

    Hi Laura,
    Thanks for sharing your story. If we try to step inside the mindset of your son, and see life through his eyes, you could see how his experience of watching his mom attend to his special needs brother, that he may come up with the idea that they way to know if you are loved and important is to get someone to stay busy with you. Its an erroneous belief, created in the mind of a child usually sometime in the first 4 or 5 years of their life. While the belief is wrong, he doesn’t know that! So, you are right – no amount of attention will “solve” or satisfy him – instead you need to correct his belief – to re-teach him that in fact he is loved and important EVEN when you are not paying attention to him! The idea is supplant a new belief which is that he is valuable just the way he is – for his ability to be helpful and to make a useful contribution of himself in the name of others. I teach parents how to do that by helping them learn to be “encouraging” so the child develops a more courageous outlook, a belief that right now, as I am, I am all I have to be – and that is good enough!
    Hope this helps!

  7. Brandon

    About a year ago I got a new kitten, who once he came of age started to spray all over the place. I got him fixed, and for a couple of days the problem had resolved, but unfortunately now he’s at it again. They say stress can cause a cat to urinate outside the litter box, and as far as I can tell only think of one thing causes my kitties stress. My 5 year old son. He doesn’t abuse them, not physically anyway, but every time he comes into the room he runs around very loudly, and chases the poor cats. Of course I tell him to stop, and even relayed to him that I thought he could be what’s causing the cat stress, and in turn making him pee on the floor. Not surprisingly this only made him terrorize them more. It’s not like my kid has to fight for my attention either. I spend most of the day with him, even getting down in the floor, and playing action figures with him. I don’t get it. I’m at my wits end. Like most 5 year old’s, my kid doesn’t understand reason. I had hoped that as he got older, he’d eventually lay off of the cats, but now that I’ve got one urinating in the house I no longer have time for eventually. Like I said, he doesn’t hurt them, but I can see their stress level rise exponentially as soon as my son enters a room. I don’t want to have to get rid of the cats, but I’m running out of options. I can’t let them destroy my house after all. I’ve tried the whole ignore the behavior, and it will go away approach in other instances where my son has misbehaved, but it doesn’t work. I’ve ruled out all other causes for the cat’s urination in the house too. Their litter boxes are clean (the cat has always done number 2 in the box, and even number 1 a lot of the times), he gets along well with the other cats, and we haven’t moved or changed anything in our routines. It has to be my son. I’ve got to figure out something. They say the first step in solving any problem is to discover what’s causing it, so at least I’ve got that out of the way I guess..

  8. Amanda Wright

    My 7 year old step daughter won’t leave my cat alone!
    She does this because she loves cats. There were many many hours of the day where I give her attention her mother insisted she be homeschooled so when she’s at our house she’s with me all day long. I include her in almost everything I do but she cannot keep her hands off my 15 year old cat. The cat hates her! The cat hates to be talked to even by me some days, doesnt want anybody in his face or too close to him. Every time I leave the room she cannot help herself but to touch my cat. Before her and mother moved out of state they also had cats and she would not leave them alone either. She had to constantly be told to put the cat down and leave it alone .One of the cats mysteriously became crippled because its hips were broke, no one knows why and the other one constantly hid. My cat is not nice and she will have stitches on her face if she keeps putting her face in his. I scared her earlier today by putting my face really close to hers and talked to her like she does the cat and she hated it but five minutes later she was bugging the cat. I don’t know what to do. I fear for my cat. She does not have learning or behavioral problems except when it comes to keep your hands off the cat.

  9. Meredith Hodgkinson

    Thank you for the great article. I hadn’t thought about it being attention seeking.

  10. DA

    Not every bad interaction with the cat is for attention from parents. My children secretly do things to the cat like squeeze her into a boot when I’m not looking. They know I’ll say no and take the cat away if they do it when I’m there. They hop up and start running after the cat when I’m playing with them or reading a book to them. They have my full attention and the cat walks into the room and off they go to bother the cat, and I can’t get their attention onto anything else easily. It is just for fun and because they don’t know how to leave the cat alone. It’s like they think she’s an amazing, exciting toy that eats, plays and walks around. I think I’ll have to let someone else adopt the cat if my children can’t leave her alone.

    • Alyson Schafer

      Of course children love animals and want to socialize and play with them. They can even be considered like a sibling in the family. But they must be trained in how to play with their pets in a kind and caring way, just as teach them to play nicely with other human friends. If they can’t be kind to the cat, I agree – you may have to put the cat in his kennel / cage for a wee bit and let the kids try again later. Or find a home to send the pet to temporarily – but the kids must have time to try again and choose differently.

  11. Angelique Pye

    Wtf so you are saying that when my 3 year old is pulling my kittens tail i am to do nothing just let her abuse my animals

    • Alyson Schafer

      Sorry if that was misunderstood. The idea is to not let the child make a connection of “cause and effect” that when they pull the cats tail, a parent gets involved and gives attention. So you can swiftly distract or redirect your child, move the cat to another room, put the 3 year old in a play pen away from the cat, just don’t give a big lecture and get all riled up about their pulling the tail. Hope that is more clear now.


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