If you have kittens in your life it can be hard to wait until you can pick the one you want and hold and pet it. While kittens that need foster care because they don't have a mother will need to be handled a lot early on, most experts suggest waiting until the kittens are a little more developed to begin the socialization period.
The goal is to socialize the kittens so that they are comfortable around people and any other pets you may have. Getting the kittens used to a variety of people, their smells, the sights and sounds of their new home, and even things like car travel will help them to be happier. You'll want your kitten to grow up to be a cat that is friendly and relates well to other people in your life or visitors you might have. There is a short window in which to properly socialize an animal, behavior experts say. If you socialize before or after this important window, your cat may not become well adjusted.
Socializing feral kittens
If a litter of feral kittens is brought in to a shelter, or if you find one in your driveway, for instance, they must be socialized before they can be adopted. Feral cats that are not used to humans are basically like wild animals, and will be frightened of people and do things like hiss, scratch, bite, and run from humans rather than initiate contact.
If you are able to start handling the kittens early on because they don't have a mother, they will be much more used to being around people. If not, and you are getting to know feral kittens later, Best Friends Animal Society says to take a slow, consistent approach. In order to help feral kittens overcome their fear, volunteers put each kitten in its own small cage, so it wouldn't be in an open area in which to run and hide. Gently but persistently make contact with the cat, through things like offering food and touching with a long-handled feather or brush.
Work with the cat several times throughout the day, for a period of about one to three minutes at a time. Eventually, the cat will become comfortable enough with you to hopefully allow you some time to pet it, and even lap time. Each cat will progress at a different rate, so pay attention to the cat's body language and develop your relationship with the cat based on her own cues.
The best socialization period for kittens
The right time to socialize will not be the same for each kitten, but generally experts recommend waiting until kittens are becoming more independent from their mothers. When you first start to interact with the kittens more, keep a close eye to make sure everyone gets along. If momma cat is not used to you or used to her kittens being "messed with," she may get upset.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) , the time to socialize kittens begins at 3 weeks of age. The best time to socialize a kitten is earlier than 9 weeks. After that, up to about 12 weeks of age, is the best time to play with the kittens. The more they experience being gently handled all over the more comfortable they will be later with things like getting their paws and ears examined, or getting their teeth checked.
The American Veterinarian cites early studies (from 1965 and 1967) showing that multiple people handling kittens for as few as five minutes a day can have lifelong benefits, especially if done prior to 7 weeks of age. They go on to say that it is much more difficult to socialize a kitten to people and other animals without early positive experiences before 7 weeks of age.
How to properly socialize
It is best to give kittens as rich an environment and as many positive experiences as possible. The AVMA says they should get exposure to both familiar and unfamiliar people, so that they can learn to not struggle with attention, and also to seek attention when they want it. The people they are interacting with should act in a way that avoids scaring the kittens.
If the kittens are still with their litter mates, hold and pet each kitten on its own, away from the others, as well as with the others. Place them in a carrier and go for a short drive, or carry them around. Imagine ways in which they might need attention later, such as for grooming or medical care, and get them used to that by touching their ears or gently examining their teeth.
Hold and pet each kitten, and play with it with a variety of toys of different sizes and textures. At this stage, expose them to a litter box so they can begin investigating it and learning to use it. Expose them to a variety of things that they can scratch on, so that they can begin to learn what they can scratch on and what they shouldn't scratch on (your couch, your pant leg, your shoe).
When kittens leave mom
Kittens can begin to wean from their mother at about three to four weeks old. Often, the mother will naturally discourage the kittens from nursing more, and may be separated from them for longer periods of time. At the same time, the kittens are developing more independence. They will also likely start to show interest in the smell of the food that mother eats. Once begun, the weaning process can take about two weeks.
It is around the age of 8 weeks when animal behavior experts agree that it is a developmentally reasonable time to permanently separate the kitten from its mother. It is ideal if the kittens are properly socialized by the time this happens, so that they can be good citizens in their new home.
If a kitten is placed in a new home at around 8 weeks, there is still time to properly socialize it, if it is not properly socialized already or if it is fearful or shy. Up until about 12 weeks of age, continue to gently introduce the kitten to new sights, sounds, and smells, while respecting the things that make her fearful, if any.
AVMA says that ongoing introductions to new experiences should continue to be provided for the first nine to 12 months of life. This helps reinforce positive associations from the socialization lessons and reinforce not having fearful reactions.
Giving a small kitten its own cage, or small box in which to take time away can help. Gently encourage interaction by using food as a reward, or toys that allow you to interact at a distance, such as a long-handled brush. Talk to the cat in a soothing voice. Use the cat's name often. Try to ensure that each interaction you have with the cat is a positive one.
Vaccinating a kitten
Before doing activities outside the home, get your kitten vaccinations done. This protects not only prevents your cat from spreading a disease, but protects your cat from getting a disease that other cats may have. Vaccinations should be given on a schedule that starts at 6 to 8 weeks of age and are repeated until the kitten is 12 weeks to 16 weeks of age.
The routine vaccinations include feline distemper, feline herpes, calicivirus, and rabies. The first three are given in combination every three to four weeks until the kitten reaches 16 weeks of age. Rabies vaccine is usually given once, over a period of 12 weeks to 16 weeks of age.
Kitten socialization classes
While many people consider it a standard to take a puppy to training classes, many people don't think a out doing the same for a cat. But there are kitten socialization classes, sometimes called "kitten kindergarten," that you can consider for your young kitten.
In "kitten kindergarten," your cat can learn things like clicker training, how to handle being in a carrier, and how to handle veterinary examinations. More training could include getting them comfortable about being in a leash or in a harness. They'll be exposed to new people, smells, sights, and sounds. It could be a chance to learn about the many toy options, litter options, or scratching post options so that you can choose the best scratching post for your cat, based on their scratching style.
Begin to hold and pet kittens at about 3 to 4 weeks of age. Set aside time to socialize by spending time with each cat individually, and exposing them to a variety of safe touch, sights, sounds, and smells. The best time to properly socialize a kitten is 3 weeks of age to 9 to 12 weeks of age.
Consider a kitten socialization class if you aren't sure you have the time or the ability to properly train your cat. The best exposure to new experiences for your kitten happens early—by 9 weeks of age, but earlier is better. Once the kitten is placed in its new home, social interactions should continue throughout at least the first year of its life, as this helps to reinforced positive behavior. If you happen to have a cat that doesn't respond to typical socialization or remains fearful or shy, or develops fear or shyness later, consult an animal behavior specialist to work out a plan that works for your cat.
- Feral Cat Focus: Feral Cats Are Not Socialized and Can't Be Adopted
- Best Friends Animal Society: How to Socialize Very Shy or Fearful Cats
- American Veterinary Medical Association: Literature Review on the Welfare Implications of Socialization of Puppies & Kittens
- Purina: Weaning Kittens
- Saan Francisco SPCA: Kitten Kindergarten
- VCA Hospitals: Recommendations for New Kitten Owners
- American Veterinarian: The Keys to Kitten Socialization