Kids Read to Cats through Book Buddies

The Book Buddies program boosts adoptability for cats and reading comprehension for kids.

By Tamar Arslanian | Posted: April 9, 2014, 3 p.m. EDT

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The practice of having children read to dogs to put them at ease has been around many years. But having kids read to cats? That is something new. In August, a photo of a young boy named Colby reading to a cat went viral on reddit, and "Book Buddies” garnered national attention.

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Cats and Kids Book Buddies Program
Cheyenne has three cats all rapt with attention. All photos courtesy of Kristi Rodriguez

Program began last fall at Animal Rescue League of Berks County, Inc. Volunteer program coordinator Kristi Rodriguez noticed her son, Sean, struggled to read and felt too embarrassed to read in front of his family, let alone his class. Kristi knew she had to do something.

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Cats and Kids Book Buddies Program
The kitties all wait very patiently as Sam and Ben pose for their photo.

Around that time, Kristi read a story about children improving their reading skills by reading to dogs. But using dogs in the Animal Rescue League shelter was just not practical. "Our shelter isn’t set up that way. The dog area is noisy, the kennels are not large and temperaments are not always appropriate with some very high energy. We do, however, have four cat colonies where people are encouraged to hang out.”

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Cats and Kids Book Buddies Program
Cassandra's cats can't wait to get on top of and literally inside the story.

The cats in the colonies are hand-selected, and out of six or so cats, about two are looking to engage at any one time. "The cats don’t judge,” says Kristi, "they just want love and attention. Our staff is so busy caring for the cats they don’t have time to snuggle with them. This is a chance for our junior volunteers to pick the colony they want to sit and read with. They open a book and already the cat’s interest is piqued and they’ll often climb onto the child’s lap.”
Cats and Kids Book Buddies Program
Sean, Kristi's son must be doing a very good job given that grey tabby is literally immersed in the story. 

The program has blossomed from 25 to 30 kids a month to 60 children a month. Some come in several times a week and will wait for an hour or two if that’s what it takes to read to the cats.  For children like Sean, the program has given them the ability to read with confidence. And with that, says Kristi, his self-esteem has improved as well. Sean isn’t alone in his outcome. Other parents – and teachers – have commented on the improved reading skills of their young students participating in "Book Buddies.”
Cats and Kids Book Buddies Program
Mattighan's cat is so fascinated he doesn't seem to notice the bottle of Pounce treats just inches from his nose!

Perhaps without even realizing it, these children make a big difference in the lives of these cats. They’re socializing them, thereby making them more adoptable. And, according to Kristi, they’re, "opening the community’s eyes to shelters as many still go to breeders. It’s absolutely helped the number of cat adoptions. Some children have even had the good fortune (and nice parents!) to adopt the cat they’ve been reading to! Even the number of dog-walking volunteers has grown.”
Cats and Kids Book Buddies Program
Trey Douglas looks to have a tough crowd in that little black cat, but he doesn’t let it derail him. Thankfully there's another cat beside him who seems rather contented.

Although the children do not receive training on how to behave with the cats, they must be in grades 1-8 and accompanied by a family member 18 years or older. Kristi insists that, "the No.1 priority is the health of the cats.”  This means families are coming in together – a parent, older sibling or grandparent – but it really becomes a family affair and it sounds like quality bonding time for all involved. The program even provides for special needs and home-schooled children to get in on the action.
Cats and Kids Book Buddies Program
This photo of Colby Procyk reading to a cat set the inter webs - primarily reddit - buzzing this past July.

If a child is unfamiliar with, scared of or just uncomfortable being surrounded by cats, folding chairs can be set-up outside those cats in cages. In this way, these children can still read to them with the assurance the cat is contained.

Word is that shelters from Los Angeles to New York have been discussing starting similar programs. Kristi says she’s received inquiries as far away as Africa! So far, she knows of two shelters taking the idea to their board, one in Sarasota, Fla., and another in Idaho.

News of the program has made it to all sorts of people who’ve taken it upon themselves to donate books. Authors from the Netherlands, book publishers and even Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt on Glee (and is a cat daddy to Brian the tabby), donated two cases of his own books!

Talk about positive reinforcement!  I told Kristi she must be very proud of the success her program has found in such a short period of time. To that she replied, "It’s very rewarding and animal rescue can be a thankless job. Tens of thousands of children and animals are benefitting from this so it’s definitely a good feeling.”

Congratulations to Kristi for thinking outside the box to help her son, others like him and the animals in her community – particularly the cats who don’t often have a good rap when it comes to being loving, giving companions. Her program has already made waves and will hopefully continue to do so. Come on New York City, let’s get with the program!
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Reader Comments

Michelle    International

5/8/2015 1:35:39 PM

I was an overly precocious and lonely child. My cats were the one immutable, unchanging, constantly loving fixture in my life -- perhaps even more so than my parents. In looking at these pictures, I saw in them the child I was, sitting on the stairs or the floor with book in hand and cat on book. I believed then, just as I believe today so many years later, that the cats could read emotion and respond to it. They are sentient beings. This is a beautiful story with moving photos.

BarbaraAtNutro    Morton Grove, IL

4/13/2014 7:22:32 PM

Wow, this one really touched my heart. It is a win win for the children and the cats. I sure hope this will catch on and become a part of many communities. Thanks for sharing this article.

Christine    Miami, FL

4/9/2014 5:37:10 PM

Excellent article that brings to light INNOVATIVE ideas that are truly making a difference for children, homeless pets and a community. And it's such a SIMPLE concept and doesn't need millions of taxpayer dollars. Here's to more

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