Animal behaviorists will tell you how socialization is for all animals so they can grow into well-adjusted adults. Kitten socialization is no different. The most crucial time for kittens is between two and seven weeks old, but this can extend up to 14 weeks.
It’s imperative that we give our feline bundles of joy the best chance to cope with whatever challenges and obstacles come their way. The foundation we give them will affect their long-term life journey. Genetic factors play a role, but proper kitten socialization significantly impacts how they interact with their world. Proper kitten socialization is important in the family environment, especially if you’re family is going to change with a new dog or baby. Furthermore, if you’re ever in the situation where you have to rehome your cat, socialization will make the transition easier.
Let’s start at the very beginning…
For the first two weeks of a kitten’s life, all they do is adjust to being outside the womb. They eat and sleep the majority of the time. After that, kittens begin to observe the behavior of their mother and of their littermates. They play with each other, learn social skills and the basics of hunting. Their brains and nervous systems are developing rapidly and the various stimuli they receive determine their rate and of development.
So what’s next?
Next up, is, well, you. First off, it’s important to spend time with mommy-cat. If the mother cat is relaxed around humans, it will help transfer that stress-free experience to the kittens. Next up, start to handle the kittens. Do so in short sessions regularly throughout the day. It helps if different kinds of people handle kittens, including young people, older people, women, men, children, etc. Try handle the kittens for up to an hour per day.
You can also introduce other animals like rabbits, birds, reptiles, dogs, other cats, etc. Ensure all animals are always safe, especially birds and small mammals. Introductions should be carried out gradually. Ensure your dog is leashed. Each experience HAS to be positive, so shower your kitten with love and treats. Kittens must feel safe during each experience, so they more readily accept ‘novel’ items in their environment.
They should also be encouraged to investigate new things such as toys that make a noise. The last thing anyone wants is a cat who explodes with aggression or fear whenever they encounter something unfamiliar.
Handling the kittens will also give you an opportunity to examine their ears and feet, tail and skin. Not only will this alert you to any problems, but it will get your kitten used to those areas being touched, which will be instrumental (and gratefully received) when visiting the vet later on.
Your kitten may decide that biting or clawing is lots of fun and gets a great reaction out of humans. During play with their littermates, they will learn that biting too hard is not pleasant for the recipient and will lead to a cessation of play. The same should apply to human interaction. Kitten socialization should include helping them understand that rough play is not acceptable. Stopping the game or interaction immediately with a firm ‘no’ will help teach them that this kind of behavior is not acceptable.
One of the easiest and safest ways to introduce kittens to a new experience is through scent. Before introducing the family dog, rub a clean cloth over Fido and then leave the cloth with the kittens so that they become accustomed to the new aroma. Make sure there are lots of shapes and objects that require investigation. This will help prepare the kittens to not greet new things with fear. Get your kitten used to vacuum cleaners, washing machines, the radio, TV, etc. Starting out with short, soft (if possible) sessions which are followed by treats and reassuring cuddles will help make the experience a positive one. Grooming is also an important ritual and should be a bonding experience between you and your cat. Do some research on how to groom cats, as there are certain areas to avoid and contact which is too rough will irritate your cat.
One of the biggest gifts you can give your cat is a good relationship with the vet. This includes the car ride there and the cat carrier they will be transported in. Keep the carrier out in the open and even make a bed in there for the little tyke. Short car rides that don’t necessarily end in a vet visit will help reduce stress on those occasions when you do take your cat to the vet.
Is eight weeks too late?
What if you don’t have access to your kitten during the first eight to ten weeks of their life because of the adoption process? This is why it is important to choose the right breeder who will socialize your kitten and expose him or her to as many experiences as possible and lay a good foundation. If you are adopting from a shelter, there is no cause for alarm – it might not be the purr-fect situation, but shelter workers go out of their way to help kittens be as well-adjusted as possible. And not all hope is lost either way – kittens can still be socialized beyond the 7 week period, you just need a bit more patience and to approach each new experience a little more slowly and carefully than would otherwise be the case.
A word of advice is to make sure your kitten receives her vaccinations to make sure she is protected from infectious diseases and is not exposed to cats who are not healthy and vaccinated.