Socialization is a word that means the adoption of the behavior of the surrounding culture. As members of our families, it is important for our pets to feel comfortable and enjoy living with us and doing the things we do. We’ve written a lot about socializing puppies, but you may not realize that kittens and cats need socialization too.
If you’ve seen shy or scared stray neighborhood cats, you have seen the result of a lack of socialization to humans. Socialization is best accomplished through exposure while your kitten is young. If an adult cat has not had a lot of positive interaction with people, it is much more difficult and takes much longer to socialize them than it does a young kitten, but the process of doing it very gradually and not pushing them to a point of anxiety or fear is the same.
What is kitten socialization?
Socialization is a very important learning process through which kittens become accustomed to different types of people, animals, objects and environments. Kittens have a short window between 3-9 weeks of age when they are forming long term opinions on what is scary and what is safe. In the wild, these opinions can be a key to survival. Once kittens reach 9 weeks of age, they start to become more suspicious of things that they have not yet encountered, even if the new experiences are positive. Gently and positively exposing them to lots of new people and things while they are little kittens is important.
Cats learn to socialize with each other from their littermates and mom. Ideally kittens should remain with their mom and littermates until 9-10 weeks old, but it is also important for them to have lots of gentle handling by people during this same time period so they learn to interact well with people. Kittens do not have to be taken from their moms and littermates into a new home to have positive socialization experiences.
Why is socialization important?
Well-socialized kittens become more confident, relaxed and happy cats. They are better able to tolerate changes in their environment. Kittens who have been well socialized tend to have fewer behavioral issues as they mature. Poorly socialized kittens are much more likely to react to new people, other animals, and changes in their environment with fear, aggression or spraying.
What should kittens be socialized to?
Everything! The more things they become accustomed to, the more relaxed they will be in a wider variety of situations. Get started early and provide gentle handling and environmental enrichment to help guide your kitten to becoming a friendly, happy adult cat.
Studies have shown human contact before 7 weeks of age can influence kittens’ friendliness toward people as they grow up. Start by gently holding and stroking your kitten for a few minutes a day. If you have the mother cat, use caution if the mother cat is anxious while you handle her newborns. Some mother cats can be very protective of their newborn kittens, especially for the first few days after birth. If this is the case, try to handle the kittens for a few moments while mom is out of the room, perhaps during her mealtime. If you find that mom’s too nervous to allow any contact with her newborn kittens, don’t fret—it’s most important to start handling them after they’re about two weeks of age. Overstimulation can be harmful to very young kittens, so keep the handling sessions brief.
When kittens are over 3 weeks of age, continue handling daily so the kitten becomes comfortable with being held and picked up.
After 4 weeks of age, start slowly introducing interactive toys such as stuffed toys or toys they can begin to chase. (Do not start with electronic, battery operated toys that make noise - they may scare the kitten)
Handle your kitten often in a positive and gentle manner. If they seem fearful or appear unhappy, stop and start again later when they are in a happy mood. Petting your kitten on the head, near the ear or on the cheeks for only a minute or two several times a day is enough to help develop social skills.
Provide positive and different experiences
When socializing a kitten to people, it is important for the people to have different appearances: tall, short, various ages, races and genders. Hats, glasses, beards, boots, and carrying different things change the way people look to a kitten, so it is important to change the appearances as well as the types of people the kitten meets.
Provide different textures such as carpet, wood, concrete, grass, linoleum and gravel. Also choose a variety of objects for them to explore such as paper bags and cardboard boxes. Common household items such as cat carriers, brooms, vacuums, and children’s toys should be introduced. Take your kitten for car rides, listen to different noises (trains, sound CDs with thunder, door bells, and horns) or add any other situation your kitten may encounter in day-to-day life.
What is the proper way to socialize?
Proper socialization introduces kittens to new people, places, objects and situations ONLY when you can control the experiences. It is VERY IMPORTANT that the kitten have POSITIVE experiences. During this learning period, they can also learn to be fearful from negative experiences. The wider the range of positive experiences they are exposed to, the better the chance that they will be comfortable in new situations when they are adults. Try not to overwhelm them, but instead introduce one new situation at a time.
Begin introducing the kitten to a new experience/object from a distance. Give treats and a lot of praise. Gradually move closer to the new experience/object while continuing to praise and give treats. Allow the kitten to investigate at his or her own pace. Make sure that the kitten is comfortable before moving closer to the objects. When meeting new people, have them give treats and let the kitten approach them. Finish the new experience with an enjoyable activity such as tossing a ball or a gentle ear rub.
If the kitten is scared (stiff tail, straight back, arched back, ears laid back, or puffed up like “scaredy cat”), socialization can be set back. Immediately move the kitten away from the situation/object, and change the situation by playing a game, talking silly to them, or have them do something instead like “sit” for a treat. Once the kitten is relaxed, start again, even slower, approaching the situation - praising and treating the whole time. Sometimes it is better to re-approach the situation after a couple days of positive experiences.
When socializing to other pets, be sure to use well behaved and friendly pets who are healthy and up to date on all vaccinations. Always supervise the interactions so that your kitten has a good experience with the pet.
Invite adults and children over frequently to interact with your kitten. Also, kittens benefit from the process of interacting to learn tricks while they are young. Cats enjoy all sorts of training such as clicker training, obstacle course training, trick training and scent training.
Kitten socialization is not an all or nothing project. The more people and experiences you can socialize and introduce your kitten to, the easier it is to help shape a happy and relaxed member of society. If your kitten missed the “socialization window,” do not worry. Slowly introduce your kitten or cat to new experiences while watching to be sure they are not frightened. It may take longer - months or even years - for adult cats to adjust. Also realize that some adult cats may never become a social butterfly but only may be comfortable with a small number of people.
Just as children learn a new vocabulary by exposure, kittens can develop a vocabulary of experiences that they are comfortable with. Most importantly, control the experiences so they can have better vocabulary of positive experiences. When you put the work into positive kitten socialization, the outcome will be a confident and relaxed family member.