How and Why You Should Socialize Your Kitten

Kittens playing and socializing
Melanie Defazio / Stocksy United

To be good pets, all kittens require early socialization. Socialization is the process by which kittens (and all other mammals) learn to interact with others in their environment. For kittens, socialization requires positive interactions with other cats and with humans.

How to Socialize Kittens

Cats can be trained at any age, and continue to learn throughout their lives. But kittens are furry sponges that absorb lessons, both good and bad, at an incredible pace. The prime kitten socialization period is a narrow window during babyhood when learning the "wrong" lessons can emotionally cripple the cat. For example, kittens not exposed to positive experiences with humans during this period will be wild (feral) critters and never accept people.

Proper socialization teaches a cat how to be a cat, proper feline manners, how to communicate with other felines, and who the cat's friends and enemies are. The age when kittens are most receptive is between two and seven weeks of age.

Kittens Learn First From Their Mother

Mother cats are the best teachers and the kitten's littermates come in a close second. There's a reason we use the term "copycat": kittens learn by watching their mother and patterning behaviors after her. If a cat mother is buddies with a dog, her kittens will accept dogs as a safe part of their world. But if the mother cat goes into hysterics at the mere whiff of eaux-de-canine, you can bet that's a lesson the kittens will have a hard time un-learning.

The littermates teach each other about claw and bite inhibition, and how to pull their punches during play. Interactions with each other and with other adult cats give kittens practice with the kitty language of meows, fluffed fur, and tail or body positions. Singleton kittens can have a difficult time learning to understand and get along with other cats because they simply don't speak the same language. For that reason, it's ideal for kittens to stay with Mom and littermates as long as possible; 10-12 weeks is optimal. And people raising or fostering litters must begin positive lessons before the babies go to new homes.

Of course, shelters often won't have the luxury of keeping kittens this long, so kittens may be adopted as early as six or eight weeks. While humans can't duplicate Mom-cat lessons, you can offer some guidance. Youngsters have an increased capacity for learning when they're young, so it's helpful for new owners to continue these lessons for several weeks after adopting a kitten. It's vital that the babies be exposed to positive experiences with other pets and people if they are to accept them as part of their "family" and become loving well-adjusted pets.

Three T's of Kitten Socialization

While human kids are taught the three R's in school, kittens can be socialized based on the three T's: Touching, Talking, and Timing.

Touching

  • Touching a kitten not only feels good to you both, it also teaches him that contact with people is pleasant, not scary, and self-rewarding.
  • Petting also places your scent on him, so he associates your smell with feelings of well-being.
  • Petting is one of the first sensations newborns feel when Mom licks and grooms them, and petting harkens back to this wonderful safe experience.
  • Pleasant touch also prompts a reduction in blood pressure and heart rate and can change brain wave activity.
  • Studies have shown that handling furry babies for five minutes a day during their first three weeks increases the pet's ability to learn later in life. When handling the kitten, be sure to touch his ears, tail, paws, and mouth so the experience is pleasant and routine. Your veterinarian will thank you for this when Junior is a star during exams.

Talking

  • Talking to your kitten teaches the youngster to listen and pay attention to your voice. They may not understand all the words but will recognize if you're happy with them, aggravated, amused, or affectionate. The more you speak to your cat, the better he will learn to understand and react to what you want. That enhances and improves your relationship.

Timing

  • Timing is the third "T" in the equation. Kittens won't know what's right and what's wrong unless you tell them at the right time. If she leaves an aromatic bathroom deposit under the piano, for example, and you find it 20 minutes later, she won't have a clue why you're angry. Only when you catch her in the act will the youngster be able to connect your displeasure with the incident.
  • It's more powerful to use timing to catch her doing something RIGHT. Praise her when she uses the litter box correctly. Offer a treat when he greets visitors with happy purrs. Celebrate with a favorite chase-the-feather or other game when the kitten plays nicely with other pets or people.

Kitten socialization helps cats to feel confident and secure in their home environments. Confidence is like emotional health insurance and will stay with your kitten for all nine of her lives.