It is very important that kittens are well socialised as it prepares them to cope with living as part of a household. Well socialised kittens are more likely to form positive and strong bonds with their owners and animal housemates and will also manage any changes within their environment without becoming distressed. This has a positive effect on the cat’s welfare and the relationship it has with its owner and other pets in the household throughout its life. Kittens that have not been socialised are far less likely to be able to cope with living in a home environment, so before you get a new kitten always ask how the breeder has socialised them.
When should a kitten be socialised?
The ‘sensitive period’ in kittens, ie when kittens are most responsive to learning and forming positive associations and bonds with humans or other animals, starts at two weeks and finishes at approximately seven weeks of age. The fear response in kittens starts at around six weeks of age, before this time they are very inquisitive and open to all new experiences. Therefore, it is very important that the socialisation process starts when the kittens are two weeks old.
Although many pet cats are social, cats are not designed to be a social species, so early handling by different types of people is important to produce friendly and interactive pet cats. Genetics also play an important role in how social or friendly a cat is towards people, and feral kittens fostered after the seven-week socialisation window may never adjust to a home environment and may be happier released back into their feral colony. Kittens that have bold, confident parents are more likely to be confident in the presence of humans themselves, so it is always advisable for prospective new kitten owners to view the parents of their new kitten.
How can a kitten be acclimatised to human contact?
It is important to start handling kittens when they are two weeks old. All the kittens should be handled while their mother and littermates are present. Initially only people that the queen is familiar with and relaxed around should have contact with the kittens, so the kittens understand that their mother is not distressed by the process. The queen should be given some fuss or distracted with a treat so she is happy while her kittens are gently handled. Kittens from mothers that are anxious of fearful around people are more likely to be upset in presence of humans. If the queen becomes aggressive in the presence of people extra care should be taken and handling should take place away from the queen.
Anyone handling kittens should always wash their hands and kittens should be handled safely, with the minimal distance from the floor, ie with the handler kneeling down. Try not to loom over kitten if possible as this can be frightening for them.
Handling sessions should start slowly and for short periods only (a couple of minutes) giving each kitten time to become accustomed to being gently stroked and then picked up and placed back with the rest of the litter. Start by gently touching or stroking the kitten’s head, chin and back and eventually the rest of the body, observing closely for any signs that the kitten is not happy - stop if the kitten seems distressed in any way. Gentle handling is really important as it will help the kittens form a positive association with being touched. Always use a soft voice to reassure the kittens and help them feel relaxed during handling. Never use rough handling or play to ‘teach’ the kitten a lesson, it will not work and may result in a fearful or aggressive kitten.
Handling can last 30-40 minutes a day (no more than one hour a day) and this can be split into two sessions if need be, providing the queen and kittens are happy and not disturbed too much. Towards the end of the socialisation period, kittens can be gently examined in more sensitive areas such as the ears, paws, mouth, and tail. This will mimic how they are examined during a health assessment at the vets, making examinations less stressful for the kitten and easier for the veterinary team.
Ideally, at least four different people should handle the kittens during socialisation. Research has shown that this can help kittens become less fearful of unfamiliar people as they get older. If possible, these people should be of different ages, genders, and races to help the kittens become used to a variety of people.
Studies have shown that handling kittens right up until nine weeks gives even better results, producing more friendly kittens.
Socialising kittens with other cats and other animals
Kittens that are known to be going to households with other cats or dogs should be socialised appropriately. Kittens who are not socialised with other cats are far more likely to react inappropriately towards other cats as adults. This alone is a good enough reason for kittens to stay with their siblings, as they carry on learning some social behaviour after the sensitive period has finished. Ideally, kittens should stay with their litter mates until around twelve weeks of age to learn how to interact with other cats.
Contact with calm and friendly dogs or cats can be introduced from around six weeks of age. Initially some scent from the other cat or dog is collected on a clean cloth. The kitten can then investigate the cloth and offering treats or toys at the same time will help the kitten form a positive association with the scent. Visiting cats should be contained in a cat carrier whilst the kitten investigates, and dogs kept on a lead throughout the process. It is worth bearing in mind that these sessions should be a positive experience, so great care should be taken to ensure the kittens do not become startled or frightened. A slow, staged approach is less likely to cause alarm to kittens who are experiencing their first encounter with a dog or unfamiliar cat.
How do I get a kitten used to equipment?
Kittens can be introduced to items such as brushes, collars, litter trays, nail clippers and food puzzles during the socialisation period. These items should be introduced slowly, one at a time - not bringing in a new object until the kitten is confident with the previous one. Allow the kittens to become accustomed to the smell, sounds, shape and texture of the objects. Leaving the objects with the litter will encourage the more confident kittens to start exploring them and encourage the more nervous ones to join in.
How do kittens learn to live in a family home?
There is another critical time in a kitten’s development - the juvenile period, which is between approximately nine weeks and six months of age. In this period kittens can learn to become used to other things such as noises from household appliances, eg washing machine or vacuum cleaner, or the sight/smell/texture of new flooring or furniture. If kittens are raised in a home environment (rather than in a sterile breeding cattery) they can naturally become accustomed to these stimuli in a positive way. This habituation can also continue once the kittens are with their new owners. Kittens should continue to have positive encounters with:
- Textures: kittens should be given objects of all different textures, sizes and forms to investigate in their own time. Try to give them different flooring textures to walk on – but kittens should not be forced to do this. Treats can be given, or owners can play with the kitten in or around new objects or flooring to encourage further exploration and a positive association.
- Sounds: kitten socialisation sounds can be downloaded online to help habituate kittens to every day household noises. These sounds should be played as a background noise at a low volume at first and then the volume increased with time. Kittens may become startled if sounds are played at too high a volume too quickly.
- Food: it is important for kittens to try and experience different flavours and textures of both dry and wet food. Kittens fed only one food type may refuse to eat an alternative food when they are adult. Sometimes a cat’s diet has to be changed for health reasons, and if the cat will only eat one type of food this can be difficult. However, any change in diet should be done slowly (over a 7-14-day period) to prevent gastrointestinal upset and food aversions.
It is very important that kittens are socialised correctly so that they can fit into a normal household and enjoy the company of humans and other animals. Socialisation must be done correctly first time because there is only a short window of a few months when the kitten is open to accepting any new experiences. Poorly socialised cats are likely to suffer with problems adjusting for the rest of their life. If you need any advice on socialising your kitten contact your veterinary practice for help.