We socialise our puppies but many of us forget to socialise our kittens. Socialising a kitten means preparing it for its place in human society and will prevent many problems for the cat in later life (McCune et al., 1995). A kitten should be handled for at least 40 minutes daily between the age of 2-8 weeks: just 15 minutes may not be enough (Karsh 1984). It might help if they also meet other friendly adult cats in this period (Casey 2012). There is a long lasting survey of kittens from birth onwards into adulthood going on at www.bristol.ac.uk/vetscience/cats.
The first eight weeks are vital for socialising (Karsh 1983, Turner, 2000) but there is probably a further two or three months, in which kittens can continue to learn how to live in a human home (Turner, 2000). Temperament is hereditary so even with socialisation, some cats will grow up to be nervous (Reisner et al., 1993, McCune 1995). Individual temperament and personality affects cats’ reactions to humans (Lowe & Bradshaw 2002). Early trauma in kittenhood may also make kittens into naturally stressy cats (Sullivan & Holman, 2012). If you have a nervous cat, respect that and love him as he is.
Socialising your kitten is particularly important if you have bought a pedigree kitten or a rescue kitten. Breeders who keep kittens in pens without enough human contact may produce fearful cats. Rescue kittens from a feral mother may also be fearful if they don’t get enough socialisation. Some rescue charities keep kittens in pens, not homes, and extra handling would make the kittens friendlier as adult cats (Casey & Bradshaw 2008). Single kittens, who have never played with their brothers and sister, may find living in a multi-cat household more difficult later.
1. Handling. Get as many people as possible to handle your kitten gently and lovingly. A minimum of four different people in the first few weeks is essential so that the kitten get used to people in general. Invite local children round to do it. Give him to men as well as women. Anybody who is gentle and passing through the house can be handed the kitten for a short cuddle. Most people will enjoy this greatly but respect your kitten’s wishes. Forcible cuddling will always be counter productive.
2. Car journeys. Take your kitten in her travel carrier for as many short car journeys as possible in the first month. If you do this, she will be unworried by car travel. Do not respond if she makes a noise while in her carrier. You don’t want to encourage a noisy traveller.
3. Travel carrier. Leave this open on the floor where it can be seen during every day life. Feed your kitten inside it every now and again. Leave a small titbit in the box for him to find on his own. You will have less trouble when you need to put him in the box to take him to the vet.
4. Dogs. If you have a dog of your own, which is safe with cats, then your kitten needs introducing to him from a safe place – inside a crate. Or keep the dog on the lead all the time. (A kitten should never be expected to live with dogs that chase cats.) Don’t introduce your kitten to STRANGE dogs otherwise it may think all dogs are safe. Alas, some are not. Wariness around strange dogs may save its life one day.
5. Noises. Make sure he hears normal household noises – washing machines, computer noises, etc. Play the radio and TV to it. Ask the breeder to leave a radio on for the kitten to get used to talk, music, TV, radio and other noises. Be cautious about using socialisation DVDs for puppies. Some of these include traffic noise. Don’t get the kitten used to traffic noise. It will be safer if he is frightened of car noises. Many cats die in road traffic accidents.
6. Games. Play games using a fishing rod toy, not hands, so that kittens know the right way to play. A kitten’s desire to play with other cats or humans peaks at 9-12 weeks. Don’t encourage rough games. Bring to an instant halt any games if the kitten uses claws or teeth (Mendoza & Ramirez 1987). Stay absolutely still and silent, do not give eye contact or any kind of rebuke till they stop. Tiny kitten teeth and claws don’t hurt much but as she gets older, they will hurt badly. If you have a kitten that is biting or play attacking do fishing rod games at a safe distance.
7. Coming when called. Cats can be taught to come when they are called. Use her name or use a call sign such as “Come”. If you have too cats it is worth having two different tones of sing song voice so that each cat can recognise its own call sign when far off. Remember to reward the cat. Cats do not come for nothing. When you call them in give them a treat. They may not be quite as reliable as dogs, but most cats will respond eventually unless they are in the middle of hunting mice (try calling a dog when it is chasing a rabbit!). Cats should be kept in at night so it is useful to be able to call them in.
8. Clicker training. This can be fun. I fed my kitten soft food and used dry kitten food for treats – healthier than shop bought treats. Before you start clicker training full time use a clicker sometimes as you set down his meal, so that he will begin to learn that a click means food. Some cats need a food lure as well as clicker. Unlike dogs they do not perform for nothing. You need to train without ever putting a hand on them – unlike dogs, who can be put in position.
9. Get your kitten used to handling in a vet’s surgery. Look in her ears, examine her neck area, examine her paws and legs, lift up her tail, open her mouth. Put her on a table and gently restrain her there (Cats Protection 2013). This should be done gently and she should be rewarded with a titbit at each stage. Forcibly handling her will put her off for life.
10. Neuter at 4 months (The Cat Group 2006). A female kitten can get pregnant from 4 months onwards and feral kittens may be older than they look.
Casey R.A., (2009), ‘The Science Behind Feline Socialisation’, Proceedings of the Southern European Veterinary Conference Congreso Nacional AVEPA.
Casey, R., (2012), ‘Socialising kittens – what we know and what we don’t,’ Focusing on Kittens, The Cat Group Conference.
Casey, R.A. & Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2008), ‘The effects of additional socialisation for kittens in a rescue centre on their behaviour and suitability as a pet,’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 114, 196-205
The Cat Group (2006), ‘Timing of neutering,’Policy Statement 1.
Cats Protection, (2013), ‘Socialisation Chart: 2-8 weeks.’
Karsh, E. B., (1983), ‘The Effects of Early Handling on the Development of Social Bonds Between Cats and People’, in eds Katcher, A. H. & Beck, A. M., New Perspectives on our Lives with Companion Animals, Philadelphia, USA, University of Pennsylvania Press, 22-28
Karsh, E. B., (1984), ‘Factors influencing the Socialization of Cats to People,’ in eds Anderson, R. K., Hart, B.L. & Hart, L.A., The Pet Connection, Minnesota, USA, Center to Study Human-Animal Relationships and Environments.
Lowe, S. E. & Bradshaw, J. W. S., (2002), ‘Responses of pet cats to being held by an unfamiliar person, from weaning to 3 years of age,’ Anthrozoos, 15, 70-79
McCune, S., (1995), ‘The impact of paternity and early socialisation on the development of cats’ behaviour to people and novel objects,’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 45 (1995) 109-124
McCune, S., McPherson, J. A. & Bradshaw, J.W. S., (1995), ‘Avoiding Problems: The Importance of Socialisation,’ in ed. Robinson, I., The Waltham Book of Human Animal Interactions, Oxford, UK, Elsevier, 71-86
Mendoza, D. L. & Ramirez, J. M. (1987), ‘Play in kittens (felis domesticus) and its association with cohesion and aggression,’ Bulletin of the Psychonomic Soiciety. 25: 27-30.
Reisner, I. R., Houpt, K. A, Hollis, N. E. & Quimby, F. W., (1993), ‘Friendliness to Humans and Defensive Aggression in Cats: The Influence of Handling and Paternity,’ Physiology & Behavior, 55, 1119-1124.
Sullivan, R. M., & Holman, P. J., (2010), ‘Transitions in sensitive period attachment learning in infancy: the role of corticosterone.’ Neuroscience and Biology, 34, 835-844
Turner, D.C. (2000), ‘The human-cat relationship.’ in eds: Turner, D. C. & Bateson, P., The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, Second Edition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 193-206