Whatever age your cat, have you ever thought about what their first experiences were like? The early weeks of a kitten’s life help to shape the adult cat they will become.
The Sensitive Period
Kittens have a sensitive period for socialization from two until about seven or eight weeks of age. The sensitive period is a special time in brain development when young animals are especially receptive to new experiences. By two weeks, the kitten’s eyes and ears are already open (although vision remains blurred for a few more weeks), they are able to smell, and their motor skills are developing very quickly. During this time, kittens are learning all about the world, playing with their fellow kittens, and exploring the environment.
Lauren Finka, PhD, feline researcher at Nottingham Trent University and author of The Cat Personality Test, says, “It’s really important to understand that this period (from around two to eight weeks of age) is the time when kittens are most susceptible to learning important lessons about the world. Their brains are much more ‘plastic’ compared to those of adult cats, meaning they are generally curious and, you could say, more ‘open minded’.”
This time is when kittens learn about people and (hopefully) that they can be friends. “The domestic cat isn’t born with an innate desire to be around humans, so the sensitive period is a really important time to help them to learn that we are not scary and are associated with nice things!” Lauren says.
Kittens should be handled by more than one person during the sensitive period, preferably including men and women, children, and adults. When kittens are only handled by one person during this time, they learn to be friendly with that person, but they are not so friendly with new people. However, research shows that if they are handled by five people during the sensitive period, they are much more comfortable with strangers and friendly towards them. Handling for 40 minutes to two hours a day is better than just 15 minutes a day, but early research showed that even five minutes a day can have profound effects. “Studies evaluating the effect of kitten handling on subsequent behaviour toward people showed that handling by multiple people for as few as five minutes a day can have lifelong benefits, especially if done prior to seven weeks of age,” says Dr. Kenneth Martin, DVM DACVB.
- If kittens have the right experiences at this time, they will become well socialized to people and other cats and get used to things and sounds in the environment, such as dishwashers, vacuums, and TV.
- Handling must be gentle (i.e. the experience must be a good one) in order to ensure the kitten is comfortable and learning to like people.
- When getting a kitten, ask about the kittens’ early life. Also pay attention to what the mother is like, as a friendly and confident mother cat is likely to have friendly, confident kittens.
- If you want to be sure your kitten will be happy in a busy household with friends and family coming and going, choose a kitten who is friendly towards you and seems confident, not one who is hiding and would be better suited to a quiet home.
Building on Very Early Experiences
Early socialization usually happens in the home of the breeder or shelter because kittens typically go to their new home between eight and 12 weeks of age. But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook—it’s important to build on those early experiences because this will help your kitten to generalize from what they already know. “Kittens will usually be beyond the age of their sensitive period when they go to their new home,” Lauren says. “However, they are still able to learn and to make both positive (and negative) associations with people, other animals, and their general environment. It’s a great idea to continue to introduce your kitten to all the things that you would like them to be comfortable with when they are older. For example, the vacuum cleaner, different sorts of people (male, female, young, and old), being in a cat carrier, being at the vets, and receiving veterinary handling.”
Although the sensitive period for socialization has passed by the time most new kittens are adopted, kittens are still learning in those early weeks in their new home. This period (eight to 14 weeks) is an important time for learning play skills, says Dr. Martin. Very young kittens engage in self-play and batting objects with their paws, and from about three weeks they begin to engage in social play with littermates. Social play increases from four to 11 weeks of age and peaks by 12 weeks, he notes. Supervise object play (especially with wand toys) so the kitten cannot hurt themselves.
Dr. Martin also notes that an important aspect of socialization is localization, in which kittens become attached to specific environments. “Cats tend to be most comfortable with environments to which they were exposed at a young age,” he says. Together, “socialization and localization shape future behavioural responses and prepare cats for a myriad of social and environmental experiences later in life.”
It’s important to do this in a very positive way, Lauren notes. “The key is to expose your kitten to these things in a little and often way so as not to overwhelm them, and to always use treats, play or other things they like to create positive associations with these new experiences.”
Children typically love to play with kittens, but ensure the kitten is having a positive time too. Kate LaSala CTC, CBCC-KA, a New York City-area behaviour consultant and owner of Rescued By Training says, “Always supervise to ensure safety for both the kitten and child. Teach kids how to properly touch and interact with the kitten and be careful the child isn’t playing too rough, scaring or chasing the kitten.”
If bringing your kitten into a home with a dog, Kate advises, “Don’t rush introductions and always make sure both animals are safe and comfortable—not just coping. Remember your kitten may have never been introduced to a dog before and that could be very scary. And if your dog has never lived with a cat before, there might be some training that needs to happen.”
Kitten Socialization Tips:
- Encourage interactions, don’t force them. The key is to make them positive experiences.
- With small children, guide their hands so they learn to pet the kitten gently.
- Although it’s tempting to let kittens play with your hands, it’s not a good idea because it won’t be so cute once they are grown up. Instead redirect them to toys any time they are trying to catch your fingers.
- When introducing a dog to a kitten or cat, use something that smells of the dog first (e.g. bedding) and give treats to make it a positive experience. Only when that is going well can you let them see each other. Always have the dog on leash at first and keep initial introductions short so that neither animal gets overwhelmed.
A five-week-old British Longhair kitten. Five weeks is when the fun starts, says Alley Cat Allies. Kittens are extremely playful at this age, especially now that their eyesight is fully developed. Interacting with people is important for kittens at five weeks of age, says the organization, recommending spending two hours each day playing with them.
Learning Life Skills
Some veterinary clinics offer kitten kindergarten classes. “Kitten Kindy” is the feline equivalent of puppy class and the trend was started by Dr. Kersti Seksel, a veterinary behaviourist in Australia. Kittens can start kitten kindergarten between 8 and 13 weeks old. The first class typically happens without kittens present and is an opportunity for people to learn about how to raise a cat. Then there are one to two more classes, which the kitten attends too. Expect between three to six kittens and ideally two presenters to keep an eye on everything. Kittens must have their first set of vaccinations before going to class.
If you can’t attend kitten class, you can still practice the following life skills at home. They are also worth doing with adult cats, but expect it to take longer (even much longer if your cat has had some prior bad experiences).
- Use treats, little bits of tuna or prawn, petting, and/or play as rewards and to make positive associations with anything new.
- Teach them to come when called. Say their name and then give them a reward. Over time, gradually increase the distance they come to get the treat.
- Get them used to gentle handling such as looking in the ears and touching the paws. Be very careful and build up gradually. If you accidentally cause a bad experience, it might instead make the kitten fearful.
- Have the base of the cat carrier out and use treats or play to encourage them to go in. Once they are used to this, add the lid and repeat the process. Ensure they are free to come and go. Over time you can start shutting the door for a few seconds and build up. This will help them get used to the carrier and make going to the vet easier. International Cat Care have some helpful videos that demonstrate this.
- Expose your kitten to vehicle travel. As soon as your kitten is comfortable in his carrier, it’s time to introduce short car trips. Reward short trips with special treats or a meal fed in the carrier. Make sure your kitten feels safe by securing both the carrier and the bedding inside; neither should slide. The best place for the carrier is behind the front passenger seat.
- Make the vet fun. With your vet’s permission, occasionally stop in simply to receive a tasty treat from the staff and to explore the exam room, nothing more (no procedures or exams). Accustoming your cat to good things happening at the vet’s office can go a long way toward stress-free vet visits later in life.
The Adult Cat
A kitten that has been well socialized will likely grow up to be a friendly, confident cat. But don’t despair if your cat is shy or if you missed the early socialization period by adopting an adult cat. The sensitive period for socialization isn’t the only thing that affects cats’ behaviour. Other factors, including genetics and life experiences, also play an important role. Learning, including learning about the social world, can happen at any age. Even cats without early positive experiences can learn; the process just takes longer.
- Help your kitten or cat feel safe by providing hiding places that are just the right size for them.
- If your cat is shy, they may prefer to play with visitors (e.g. with a wand toy) rather than be petted, or maybe they will prefer to hide. That’s okay. Aim for your cat to be comfortable in all interactions.
- Always give cats a choice of whether or not to be petted.
- Ask your vet if you have any concerns about your cat/kitten’s behaviour.
Wanting to keep your cat active and engaged? Find out how to make the most of playtime with these Modern Cat tips.