The early weeks of the kitten’s life are essential for them to learn about their environment, become socialised with people and learn species-specific behaviour. This socialisation window (also known as the socialisation period) occurs between 2-7 weeks when the kitten is most receptive to a wide range of stimuli that can lay down the groundwork for how the kitten responds to people and situations for the rest of his or her life. During the socialisation period, the kitten should be exposed to situations that will be a part of their everyday life. This includes interactions with people, pets, veterinarians as well as environmental enrichment. Kittens who are socialised during this critical period have a better chance of growing up into well-adjusted adults.
What does socialisation involve?
All experiences should be as positive, to raise a confident and outgoing cat who can handle a variety of everyday situations. Two-week-old kittens are still very immature, so the socialisation period must be carried out over weeks and don’t rush everything at once.
Time with the mother and siblings:
The kitten should be with conspecifics (members of the same species), preferably the kitten’s mother and siblings. Both the mother and siblings teach the kitten acceptable sociable behaviour. The kitten learns elimination behaviours, hunting skills (if given the opportunity) and how to groom. If the mother cat is fearful or reactive to a situation, the kitten will also learn this behaviour. If the kitten is an orphan, ideally a foster mother can be found, although this isn’t always possible.
Kittens play with their siblings, which teaches them coordination skills as well as social behaviour and cat body language (arched back, flat ears, hissing). Sibling play teaches boundaries, if the kitten bites a sibling too hard, the sibling will let the kitten know, and the kitten learns how to inhibit a bite or scratch. Kittens who are hand raised or singletons often don’t know how to inhibit their bite, which can lead to injuries.
Time with people:
Interaction with people, which includes being handled by familiar people as well as people the kitten doesn’t know. Hold the kitten in a variety of positions (never by the scruff), handle the paws and groom the kitten with a soft brush. Once the kitten is eating solid food, practice administering tuna juice with a syringe. As the kitten matures, practice pretend veterinary examinations, offer treats as a reward. Make sure the interactions are positive.
Once kittens are active, practice calling the kitten so that he or she comes back to you.
Introduce a variety of toys for the kitten to play with. These can include wand toys, food puzzles, toy mice and laser pointers. Play therapy stimulates the mind and helps the kitten develop coordination skills.
Introduce the kitten to the cat carrier, which can be left out at all times. Teach him or her that the carrier is a safe place. Place a soft blanket in the carrier along with some treats. Familiarity with the cat carrier can make future veterinary visits less stressful.
Introduce the kitten to different sounds around the house such as the television, washing machine, vacuum cleaner.
Time with other animals:
Introduce the kittens to other pets in the home as long as they are friendly. Always monitor interactions to ensure they are positive.
Newborn kittens need little more than their mother for warmth and milk. As they grow and start to explore, it will be necessary to provide them with some basics, which go hand in hand with the socialisation period.
- Small litter tray that the kitten can climb in and out of
- Cat litter (avoid clumping until the kittens are older)
- Food and water bowls
- Kitten food
- Scratching post
- Nail clippers
When should a kitten go to his or her new home?
The ideal age is 10-12 weeks, which allows the kitten to be socialised with people as well as learn cat behaviours from mum and siblings. This isn’t always possible for orphans or shelter kittens who can benefit from one-on-one attention in a new home. But for most kittens, who have a mother, and are not in a shelter environment, then 10-12 weeks provide the kitten with cat skills, human exposure and offers the protection of 1-2 vaccinations before moving into the new home.
Is it possible to socialise an older cat?
Not every cat will have experienced socialisation during the socialisation period, it is possible to socialise older kittens and adult cats, but it can be more difficult. It takes a lot of time and patience. The cat may never be fully accepting towards humans or other pets, but it is definitely possible. Don’t ever force uncomfortable situations on a cat, let them dictate the pace.
The purpose of early socialisation is to raise who is comfortable around people, other animals and can be handled for nail trims and physical examinations.
Always follow the kitten’s lead, if he or she appears fearful of a new situation, back off. Tomorrow is another day to try again. Always give the kitten plenty of praise, love and treats (for kittens who are on solids). Kittens respond to positive experiences.
Never play rough with your hands or allow the kitten to bite or scratch you. A bite from a kitten might not hurt, but it will when the kitten has grown into an adult. Kittens must learn that hands are for strokes, not play.
The greater the socialisation the kitten receives during this important window, the better adjusted the kitten will be. They will have better coping skills and integrate into their new home easier. All cats will continue to benefit from socialisation and positive reinforcement so continue to work with the cat even past this window.