Are you bringing a new kitten home? This is going to be a happy and exciting time but it’s also a critical period of learning for your new feline family member. This is when you should work on socializing your kitten to help them develop into a confident, well-adjusted adult cat. Proper early socialization is fundamental to your kitten’s emotional and mental growth and is vital in establishing strong, healthy bonds to humans and to other animals.
Why Socialization is Important
Socializing your kitten helps them develop confidence and makes them more secure about life situations. Gentle, properly done exposure to people, experiences, and animals, will help create positive associations and reduce fear. Your kitten, when grown, will be better equipped to face events such as unfamiliar guests in the home, travel, being in a carrier, veterinary visits, handling, grooming, introduction to new pets, unfamiliar environments, and other circumstances that are a part of everyday life.
Socialization will also be a valuable tool for working with your kitten on desirable behavior and communication. Poorly done socialization, or if there is no socialization, can leave a kitten prone to fear, increased aggression, and more difficulty in establishing healthy relationships to humans or other animals.
Socialization done now is an investment in your kitten’s emotional, mental, and physical health as they grow into a well-adjusted, happy, and confident member of your family.
Here are some tips to get you started.
1. Adopt Two!
If you haven’t already adopted your new kitten, or if you’ve recently brought the youngster home, your timing is perfect to adopt a second one. After the initial expense of kitten vaccinations and deworming, it’s not that much more of a financial commitment to adopt two instead of one, and there are so many advantages. First, it’s easier to adopt two kittens now rather than try to introduce a new cat later should you decide you want to increase your feline family. Kittens also learn valuable lessons from each other as they grow. Socialization is easier with two kittens as they will take their cues from each other. Companionship is another benefit of adopting two as they grow and develop a close bond. I realize not everyone is in a position to adopt two, or maybe you already have other cats at home, but if it’s a possibility, I hope you’ll consider it.
2. The Sensitive Period
The critical socialization period in kittens is between 2-7 weeks of age but can extend to 14 weeks. This doesn’t mean you should take kittens away from mom and littermates early. On the contrary, if possible, kittens should remain with the queen and littermates for the first 12-14 weeks. It’s during this time they learn how to communicate with each other, how to engage in social play, and other valuable lessons. Cats are observational learners, so this time together is key. During this period though, frequent, gentle handling by humans, along with the other aspects of socialization will set the stage for being comfortable around humans and being less fearful of things in their environment.
If you purchase a kitten from a breeder or adopt one from someone whose cat had kittens, it’s important to ensure that kitty is getting the adequate socialization before they leave their feline family. You want to adopt from someone who is doing the proper socialization before you even get the kitten. Of course, life doesn’t always happen that perfectly and the kitten you adopt may be one you rescued or one that was abandoned early. In that case, continue to do the socialization process because any work done is beneficial throughout the stages of kittenhood.
3. Gentle Handling
Gradually acclimate your kitten to being gently handled. In addition to petting, hold the kitten so they become comfortable with that sensation. Very gently touch the ears, paws, tail, and mouth. These sessions get your kitten used to having those sensitive areas touched. Frequent, gentle handling this way will be an advantage later as your kitten matures because of the type of touch done during veterinary exams as well as normal grooming procedures. It will also increase the chances of raising a cat who is at ease being held and carried.
4. Gentle Introductions to People
When you feel your kitten is ready, begin the introduction to your immediate family members. Don’t overwhelm your kitten, especially if they’re fearful. The key is to do everything gradually and gently. Instruct family members on how to handle the kitten and how to do gentle play. Let the kitten take the lead in approaching. Teach children not to follow the kitten around or force interaction. Gradually expand the introductions to visitors in the home but always keep interaction positive.
5. Introduction to Other Family Pets
Introducing your kitten to other pets in the home should be done in a controlled and careful way to ensure everyone’s safety, most especially the vulnerable kitten. Even though a kitten may seem fearless and energetic, keep in mind that they are very vulnerable to injury. If you are introducing your kitten to a resident cat, the process will require more finesse to help your resident cat not feel threatened by the appearance of an unfamiliar feline in their territory. You can find step-by-step instructions on how to do a new cat introduction in my book, Cat vs Cat. This book was written specifically for multicat households.
If introducing to the family dog, careful training and supervision are required to ensure safety for both animals. Keep your dog leashed during initial training. Baby gates are also beneficial during the process. If you’re unsure about how to do a cat/dog introduction, or your dog isn’t trained and you’re concerned for the safety of the kitten, contact a professional trainer to assist you. Nothing is more important that the safety of all the animals in the home. If your dog has been allowed to chase small animals in the past or you feel this may not be a safe pairing, then it’s best not to bring a kitten into your home.
6. Train With Love
Positive training goes hand in hand with socialization. Use treats, praise, petting, and play as rewards for desired behaviors and to help your kitten make positive associations with particular actions. Offer a treat as a reward when the kitten allows their paws to be touched, or when they approach an unfamiliar guest in the home, go in the cat carrier, and so on. Don’t overfeed with treats though. I recommend breaking treats into very small pieces for reward-based training. You don’t need a kitten to be chomping on a treat for three minutes; you just need a brief, yet effective reward to build a positive association.
7. Home and Away
Start with introducing your kitten to the various rooms in your home, one by one. Depending on the size of your home, it can be way too overwhelming and dangerous for a little kitten to have unlimited access so do a gradual exposure. Make sure each room has been kitten-proofed as well, to ensure safety. In addition to exploration of different rooms in your home, gradual exposure to the various sounds and activities of daily life will be important as well. Television sounds, washer and dryer, dishwasher sounds, vacuum cleaner, and so on, are all part of normal daily life and you don’t want to raise a cat who is terrified of those things. It doesn’t mean your cat may choose to remain in the same room when you are vacuuming or when the washer starts the spin cycle, but gradual exposure to these foreign sounds while you are offering treats or playing with your kitten will help diminish anxiety.
Carrier training, travel, and being in unfamiliar environments will also be a principal part of your kitten’s socialization process. Trust me, you want to do carrier training early so you don’t end up with an adult cat who turns into a hissing chain saw when it’s time for a veterinary visit. Take time to help your cat adapt to being in the carrier, being in the car, travel, and even being at the veterinary office. Stop in for brief visits just so your kitten gets used to the smells, sights, and sounds associated with that environment. Keep it positive. The receptionist may pet your kitten or offer a treat, or perhaps the veterinary technician or even the veterinarian can pet or hold your kitten for a few moments. Every aspect of these exercises will pay off later because so many cats who were never trained to tolerate being in a carrier or traveling in car, endure so much more stress and fear.
8. Kitten Kindergarten
Yes, there’s such a thing. If your veterinary clinic or local shelter offers kitten kindergarten classes, sign up! This is a time where your kitten can be around other healthy, vaccinated kittens. During the session your kitten will also be held by others. It’s a very useful socialization tool and you both will learn so much.
This is a time where you and your kitten are getting to know each other, and a bond is beginning to form. Even though you may have an energetic kitten who is up for playing with anything that moves, conduct interactive play sessions with interactive toys. These are wand toys based on a fishing pole design. These toys put a distance between your kitten’s teeth/claws and your hand. Interactive playtime is a valuable time of bonding because it helps your kitten make a positive association with you and the fun they’re having. Interactive playtime also allows you to mimic the movements of prey so the kitten can react as the hunter – stalking, pouncing, and then capturing the prey. This is good for your kitten’s mental, emotional, and physical development. If you have a kitten who is extremely fearful and isn’t comfortable approaching you yet, using an interactive toy for gentle playtime may be just the ticket to winning them over. The kitten can stay at a safe distance and still be able to enjoy the game.
Interactive playtime should be done at least a couple times per day. Remember, it’s as much mental as physical so don’t conduct an exhausting game that leaves your kitten panting and exhausted. A gentle game that allows your kitten to plan, stalk, pounce and successfully capture multiple times will be most beneficial. This is also a time where the youngster will be learning about their developing skills, coordination, and balance
10. Cats are Always Learning
Even if your kitten is older, or if you have adopted an adult cat, the process of gentle exposure and introduction to different aspects of cat life will be essential. It’s never too late to help your cat become less traumatized by the sight of the cat carrier, or for you to use the proper introduction process when expanding your pet family. Cats are always learning and whether the information they receive is positive and helpful, or abrupt and scary, is really up to us.
Need More Information?
For more information on kitten behavior and training, check out the books by best-selling author, Pam Johnson-Bennett. The books are available at your favorite bookstore as well as online. For your convenience, we have included a link to Amazon on our site.
Note: This article is for general information purposes only and is not intended as a medical diagnosis, nor should it replace your cat’s veterinary care. If you have any questions about your cat’s health, consult with your veterinarian.