Like babies, kittens are not born understanding the world and how to behave. It is up to us to help them flourish and develop into friendly and confident companions. Well-socialized kittens are more likely to grow up to be friendly and social adult cats who are easy to handle.
The best time to socialize a kitten is from 2 to 7 weeks of age. This is when kittens are most open to new experiences and thirsty to learn.
When socializing your kitten(s), it is important to remember that exposure is not the same as socialization. Having a screaming 4-year-old yanking on your kitten’s tail could well cause the cat to be afraid of children for life. However, meeting several young children who are calm and handle the kitten appropriately can lead to a cat who adores kids.
- Before doing anything, mom needs to be okay with you petting the kittens in order to avoid accidentally teaching the kittens to be stressed by petting. There is no truth to the idea that a mother cat will reject her kittens if they are touched by people.
- If mom does seem to be too anxious for the first few days try petting the kittens while she is out of the room or sleeping
- Start Small. Gently pet and hold newborn kittens for just a few seconds several times each day.
- At 2 weeks of age, pick up and hold the kittens in different positions for brief periods every day. As they get older, it is okay to handle them more frequently and for longer periods of time.
- By 4 weeks of age, intensify socialization:
- Introduce new textures by playing with kittens on carpeting, tile, wood, blankets, rugs, concrete, etc.
- Expose the kittens to household noises such as blenders, doorbells, banging pots, washing machines, alarm clocks, stereos. Muffle loud or harsh noises at first by covering the appliance with a towel or making the noise while the kittens are in an adjacent room.
- If there are no children living in or visiting the home, buy a CD with the sounds of children and play it frequently.
- Place items, such as winter boots, skateboards, bags of groceries, and books on the floor for the kittens to investigate.
- Offer a variety of objects for the kittens to play with, include empty plastic bottles, paper towel cores, and cardboard boxes in different sizes, as well as commercial cat toys.
- Continue to handle the kittens daily, include touching every part of their bodies.
- Put the kittens in a carrier and go to a friend’s house for a brief play-and-cuddle session. If no one is available to host, simply go outside and come back in or go for a drive around the block. Play with the kittens as soon as you return home.
- At 5 weeks of age, more people should be interacting with your kittens. Behaviorists recommend they meet at least 100 people during the primary socialization period. Expose the kittens to a variety of people for optimal socialization: young, old; male, female; wearing glasses; wearing a hat; light-skinned, dark-skinned; animated, laid-back; etc.
What if you adopt an older kitten that has not been socialized? Not all is lost. The kitten can still benefit from the above but she will not learn as quickly and may not be as comfortable with as many things as a well-socialized kitten. Start by working on the two or three things that you believe are most important for her adult life and then add the others later. To learn more, please see our article on Socializing Your Adolescent/Adult Cat.
If you would like information from an Anti-Cruelty Society Behavior Specialist regarding this behavior topic, please call 312-645-8253 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.