Kittenhood is the best time to teach a cat to acclimate to a variety of new sights, sounds, people and other animals. New experiences create familiarity, and pairing new positive experiences with rewards creates confidence. Cats that have been actively socialized are less likely to be fearful in unfamiliar situations, or uncomfortable with changes in their environment.
The following has been adapted from material on the ASPCApro website.
To ensure that kittens in your care are friendly and well-adjusted:
- Socialize the kitten with both people and other animals
- Introduce the kitten to a wide range of events, environments and situations
All animals, including cats, have a window of opportunity at the start of their lives during which they learn to accept things around them so they are not afraid of them later in life.
When to start socialization
Kittens have a prime socialization window which occurs at 2-7 weeks of age but can extend up to 14 weeks. During this time, the kitten is most receptive to new experiences.
In an animal centre environment, it is crucial to take advantage of this window of opportunity to offer the kitten plenty of novel experiences and interactions with people. You can help boost confidence and reduce the development of fears and phobias by providing kittens with a variety of experiences during these early weeks. This will help them adjust to their new home for those first few days or weeks when they are exploring a novel environment.
After the window closes, unfamiliar people, objects and experiences are approached with caution, and the kitten may become fearful. In fact, the most common cause of fear and aggression is lack of socialization.
Keep these interactions short and frequent so as not to overtire the kitten.
Create a socialization schedule:
- Combine a variety of situations with positive reinforcement and rewards
- Have the kitten become accustomed to handling by different people during its stay
- Ensure the kitten is touched in different places such as the ears, paws, mouth and belly
- Provide a wide variety of opportunities to explore
- Expose them to different sights, sounds and smells
Ensure that socialization experiences are positive and that the kitten does not display signs of fear or anxiety in every situation.
The following are important things to remember when socializing kittens:
- Since kittens learn by watching how an adult cat behaves, it is important to keep the litter with the mother until at least eight weeks of age. This time frame coincides with the end of weaning for most kittens
- Through observational learning, they gain important knowledge such as how to use the litter box, to cover waste, how to hunt and kill (although this behaviour is partially predetermined genetically), what foods are safe to eat and who is appropriate as a friend
- Kittens also learn to cope with stress and frustration during the weaning period as the mother cat controls access to her milk
- While in the animal centre, it is important to keep littermates together. Through their interactive play, kittens learn to control their clawing and biting and to extend their acceptance of littermates to cats outside of the family
- Interact with kittens at their level without looming over them or backing them into corners
- Engage in gentle handling as soon as possible. Early human handling results in more successful socialization. When the kittens are two to three weeks of age, increase the variety of handlers to include three or four people daily to help the kittens learn to trust humans
- Provide plenty of sensory stimulation. Kittens kept in a more complex environment for their first two months are less nervous later in life than those kept in unstimulating surroundings
- Use food to facilitate the socialization process because growing kittens have an insatiable appetite. Using food invites them to approach you and be touched. Ensure the kittens interact with you in order to receive that reward:
- Start with them eating from a dish or off the finger and eventually progress to touching and petting while they are in your lap eating. Start petting the head and shoulders only. If the kittens run off, lure them back with food on the finger. Expand petting and touching to include touching the underbelly.
- Using food as a lure can allow you to pick the kitten up while it is distracted and enjoying the food. Sit on the same level as the kittens so the first real lift is close to the floor. Lift under the chest with a small dish of food directly in front of the kitten’s nose the entire time. Hold the kitten loosely on your knees and eventually up to your chest so your heartbeat can be heard.
When the kittens are comfortable with this activity, try lifting while you’re kneeling and then eventually while you’re standing. When the kitten is very full and getting sleepy, try gentle petting and progress to holding and petting without the incentive of food being present. If this works you should be able to try it at other times between meals.
In regards to feral kittens, research confirms that eight weeks is the general cut-off date for socialization, although there are exceptions. Most feral kittens are frightened by interactive play when first exposed to humans. Move slowly, and begin with a toy that isn’t too threatening and allows distance – a toy on the end of a stick, for example.
Be flexible and experiment. Use the toy that proves to be the kitten’s favourite as a reward for achieving new steps.