Cats who have been actively socialized are less likely to be fearful in unfamiliar situations or uncomfortable with changes in their environment. Kittenhood is the best time to teach a cat to enjoy various sights, sounds, people and other animals. Pairing new experiences with rewards creates confidence in your kitten.
Just like puppies, kittens have a prime socialization period. But while puppies can go to class to learn to be social, kitten socialization classes are still a new phenomenon, and finding one near you may be difficult. This is easily remedied, though. By planning the right experiences for your cat, you can socialize her on your own.
When to Start Socializing
It is important that your kitten has the proper socialization when she is young. The main socialization window for kittens is from 2 to 7 weeks of age, but it can extend up to 14 weeks. During this time, your cat is most receptive to new experiences. Kittens are frequently not brought home until 7 to 8 weeks of age, making it imperative that you choose a breeder that will provide your kitten with a variety of experiences during those early weeks to ensure the right foundation has been laid.
Kittens also need protection from infectious diseases and parasites before they begin socializing with other animals. Kittens receive maternal antibodies, which last for several weeks to a few months of age; after that, they are less protected from diseases. Feline vaccinations are often given in a series that lasts until around 16 weeks, during which time kittens may be exposed to new people but should be sheltered from other cats. Follow your veterinarian’s advice about when it’s safe to expose your kitten to other cats.
During the socialization period, help your kitten become accustomed to being handled by different people and being touched in different places, such as the ears, paws, mouth and belly. Your kitten should also be offered a wide variety of opportunities to explore and interact with different people, animals, sights and sounds. When you combine a variety of situations with positive reinforcement and rewards, you increase the chances of your kitten growing into a confident cat.
If your cat lacks experience, she may automatically categorize anything unfamiliar as threatening. In order to avoid this, keep in mind the type of situations your cat will likely be exposed to during her life, and present those situations to her as a kitten. For example, even if you don’t currently have children, you should expose your cat (in a positive manner) to children, because your situation could change (you could find yourself with children or grandchildren, or with friends and family who visit with their children).
It’s essential that the experience is positive and your kitten is without fear in every situation. If a kitten is exposed to things when she is afraid and is not provided with positive reinforcement, she will learn that that particular stimulus is bad and should be avoided. Introduce your kitten to new things in such a way that she has the ability to approach the stimulus on her own terms and at her own pace. Pair the socialization experience with positive rewards. Should your kitten display signs of fear, make the experience less intense — increase the distance between the kitten and the new object, for example, or lower the volume. Always move at a pace that allows your kitten to remain relaxed and to enjoy her reward.
Create a Socialization Schedule
Make a list of things your kitten is likely to experience during her lifetime. Use this list to create a schedule of opportunities to expose her to new and different things. For example, get your kitten used to guests in your home by inviting friends to come over for coffee or dinner. Find ways to make the experience rewarding for your kitten; encourage her to approach guests on her own and reward her with tasty treats when she does so. Ask your friends to help by playing with your kitten (ideally with a toy she already loves), petting her (if she is comfortable with this) and giving her treats.
Here are some suggestions for situations a cat should be exposed to:
Veterinary office (including scale, exam table, handling, restraint)
House situations (using different tools, cleaning, working, music)
Outside (while on a harness)
Groomers (while in carrier or on harness)
Other cats and kittens (all well-socialized and vaccinated)
Dogs (only cat-friendly ones)
Birds (in a manner where the bird is safely able to get away)
Any other animal they may come in contact with during their lifetime
Guests in the home
Having a picture taken
Being held (in a manner where they are never afraid and never dropped)
Playing with a variety of toys