The adult personality of a kitten is mostly determined in the first sixteen weeks of a kitten’s life, which highlights the importance of proper socialisation of kittens in those early weeks. But what exactly is proper socialisation and how do we make sure we are giving a kitten the best possible chance to develop into a happy and well adjusted adult?
Socialisation is the act of socialising an animal so that it learns to interact with humans and other animals which it lives with, or will encounter.
This sensitive period (called the socialisation period) begins at two weeks of age where kittens show a willingness to explore and play, they are eager to learn and experience new animals, people and objects without fear.
A well socialised kitten grows into a sociable cat who is able to have positive interactions with humans as well as other animals. Start from two weeks and make those interactions positive.
Staying with mum:
First things first, the ideal age for a kitten to leave its mother is twelve weeks.
Kittens learn socialisation skills from their mother, siblings as well as people. One of the biggest mistakes a pet owner can do is adopt a kitten who is too young. Kittens learn a great deal from their mother and litter mates through play and other interactions. Have you noticed kittens at play? They stalk, jump, attack, bite, and roll around with their litter mates. This is a precursor for hunting behaviour as an adult and while most of our cats won’t have the opportunity or need to hunt, learning this behaviour is important. Why? Well, it teaches them physical coordination and how to read social cues. A kitten who is too rough with a littermate or its mother receive feedback with a hiss or a whack that it has gone too far, which teaches the kitten how to use an inhibited bite.
An inhibited (or soft) bite is a gentle bite, where the cat causes no harm to the person or animal it bites. My two dogs use an inhibited bite when they are playing together and my Tonkinese cat uses an inhibited bite if we rub his belly.
A kitten taken away from its mother too soon can also go on to develop an attachment to suckling items such as a blanket or its own tail due to being weaned too early. A kitten starts on solid food from four weeks of age, but will continue to nurse from its mother until the eight week mark.
Get kittens used to gentle handling from early on. Stroke the kitten, pick it up, hold it, examine him and gently explore the belly, pay attention to the feet and claws, belly, ears and mouth.
If you plan to bring a kitten into your home, do your homework about its upbringing. Has the kitten been handled a lot by people or just one person? Has the kitten been around children? I always recommend buying a kitten who is used to children if you have children at home, especially younger children.
The kitten needs to know that humans are a source of happiness, attention and comfort. Don’t ever hit or yell at a kitten, it does nothing to change an undesirable behaviour, and just teaches the animal to be fearful of people which can exacerbate the situation.
One final thought, remember that hands are for petting, not for hitting or playing. A soft kitten bite might be cute, but not a bite from an adult cat, so don’t teach them to play fight with your hands.
Habituation is the process of accustomising a cat to environmental stimuli such as the vacuum cleaner, television, radio or washing machine so that it will not be fearful.
A kitten should be exposed to the hustle and bustle of a noisy household from a young age.
The cat carrier can be a source of stress for any cat, especially if it only comes out when the cat needs to visit the veterinarian. It won’t take long before the cat associates the carrier with pain and discomfort. Instead, keep the carrier out at all times, as a place your cat can retreat to when it wants some time quiet time. Growing up as children, we were taught if the cats went into the carrier, we had to leave them alone. It was their sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle of a noisy household.
Let’s face it, not many of us like to visit the doctor and be poked and prodded, we have the advantage that we know they are trying to help us. We don’t want cats to associate every trip to the veterinarian as an unpleasant one, this stresses the cat out, which can make the cat difficult to handle during an examination and treatment.
Schedule walk-in visits where nothing happens other than the cat receives a treat or a cuddle so he won’t always associate the veterinarian with fear and discomfort.
Most kittens are taught proper toileting from their mother but sometimes mistakes happen. Keep the kitten confined to a small area in the first few days, there should be a bed, food and water bowls and the kitten’s litter tray. Try to use the same litter the breeder or shelter has used initially. Buy a small litter tray to start with, so that the kitten can easily climb into and out of it, as the kitten grows, graduate to a larger tray.
If the kitten does have an accident, don’t over-react and definitely don’t hit or rub the kitten’s nose in it. Clean up the mess and try again. Place him in the tray every time he wakes up and after he has had a meal.
From an early age introduce the kitten to unfamiliar people, as during the life of the cat, there will be situations where the cat encounters a stranger, be it a veterinary nurse, pet groomer, boarding cattery owner or friends and family who pay you a visit.