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Kitty training: Advice for properly socializing your kitten

Leslie Sinn, DVM, CPDT-KA Behavior Resident and Member of the Virginia Veterinary Medical Assocaition (VVMA) American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
Kitty training: Advice for properly socializing your kitten

Bringing home a new pet means lots of changes for you and your family. When it comes to kittens in particular, you need to take lots of care to ensure that your furry friend stays happy and healthy. One way to accomplish this is through proper socialization – introducing your kitten to their new world and everyone and everything in it. Here are a few simple aspects of kitten socialization to keep in mind to help your kitten adjust well to its surroundings and become a beloved part of your life.


Do

Do be aware of the proper socialization period

ll pets should receive socialization early in life, but a very specific socialization window exists for kittens. This brief period takes place from the time a kitten is three weeks old to when it is seven or eight weeks old. Once this period passes, new people, animals and objects can become stressful to kittens, causing an overly anxious and fearful response.

During this time, be sure expose your kitten to as much as possible so that they will be well adjusted throughout their life. For example, have your kitten spend time around men, women and children of different ages so they will be used to having other people handle them as they grow (i.e. veterinarians, a significant other, etc.). They will then become more open and friendly around others, benefitting both you and your kitten. A study by Karsh & Turner (1998) indicated that as little as five minutes of daily gentle handling could significantly increase your kitten’s friendliness towards people.

Do introduce your kitten to new people, places and other animals

When you are socializing your kitten, be sure to take them out and about to expose them to as many new people, animals, objects and environments as possible in a safe manner. If you expect them to be around a member of the opposite sex, or someone of a different age regularly, this is a great time to introduce your kitten to these people. If a kitten is raised by a woman owner and is not socialized with men, they may be frightened when a man attempts to pick them up or care for them. The same rule holds for animals, so try to slowly introduce your kitten to calm, gentle dogs by getting together with your friends and their pets for a play date. Supervise your kitten while outside and help show them different environments to make them a well-rounded cat.

Do talk to your veterinarian about socialization

If you have any questions about kitten care and socialization, talk to your veterinarian to figure out a plan of action. There are many veterinarians who own cat-only or cat friendly certified practices, as well as general practice veterinarians, who can help you with ideas on when and where to best socialize your kitten. You can also discuss making routine trips to their office more enjoyable for your kitten by following a few simple steps. These include familiarizing your kitten to its crate by feeding them in their crate, having them sleep in their crate, and rewarding them with treats for behaving during their trip to the veterinarian’s office. If your kitten gets used to your veterinarian at an early age, visits to their office will become a pleasure and they will have taken an important step towards maintaining lifelong health and wellness. Several wonderful videos on carrier training your cat are available on the Catalyst Council website.

Do educate yourself on proper kitten socialization

In addition to talking to your veterinarian, there are several other ways to educate yourself about proper kitten training and socialization. Karen Pryor’s book Getting Started: Clicker Training For Cats is a great book that can teach you the basics of kitten socialization and how to train them to respond to certain commands. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ website also has a section dedicated to pet behavior that can give you insight on how to make sure your kitten gets a great start in the world. Also, remember that your state veterinary medical association can direct you to many other helpful resources.

Do research socialization options in your area

“Kitty kindergarten” is a concept developed by Dr. Kersti Seksel, a veterinarian and animal behavioral specialist in Australia. These socialization and training classes help your kitten adapt to the world around them and get used to other kittens and humans through games, grooming and basic instruction. Though not as readily available in the United States, more and more veterinary practices and animal-related organizations are beginning to host kitty kindergarten classes.


Don't

Do not keep your kitten too sheltered

Though your kitten is small and delicate, they need to be exposed to various stimuli in the first few months of their life in order to become properly socialized. Once your kitten has its first set of vaccinations, and as long as you supervise your kitten and choose safe activities for them, it is ok to have them around other animals and humans to teach them about their environment. Keeping a kitten too sheltered can lead to a fearful animal that avoids interaction with other animals and human beings, and is difficult to train later in life.

Do not use punishment to teach proper play and socialization

Having a dedicated playtime for you and your kitten, or with your kitten and other animals, is a great way to socialize them and teach them proper behavior. Kittens love wands with “tails” or feathers attached and like to chase after small objects like balls or stuffed toys. When using toys with a kitten, try to avoid playing directly with your hands, and be on the lookout for excessive aggression. If you do see excessive aggression or other unacceptable behaviors, stop the interaction and walk away, but never use physical punishment. Kittens will not respond well to this, and you do not want your cat to be afraid of interacting with you or someone else. Keep in mind that some aggression, pouncing and swatting, is completely normal kitten behavior, but know where to draw the line.

Do not ignore warning signs of behavioral issues

Never ignore the warning signs of behavioral issues in your kitten. Some specific negative behaviors to look out for include excessive aggression, constant hiding, avoidance of interaction with other animals and people, and “spraying” – urinating on vertical surfaces to mark territory. These behaviors are signs of stress and other underlying issues in your kitten. While isolated incidences may be normal, keep track of recurring behaviors and talk to your veterinarian about how to solve the problem. When issues are spotted early, you can take action along with your veterinarian to benefit both you and your kitten.

Do not be afraid of using different modes of socialization

There is no one set method of kitten socialization, and you should not be afraid to add a little variety to your efforts. Positive and happy interaction with other humans and animals is important, but don’t forget about using actual training as well. You can train a cat. Kittens and cats do not possess an innate desire to please humans like dogs do, and therefore expect some kind of benefit or reward for performing certain behaviors or participating in social activity. To form a social bond with your kitten, reward them for desired behaviors with special treats or playtime. Many kittens can be successfully trained to sit, stay and even perform certain tricks. Training as socialization works well in many kittens, so don’t be afraid to try something new every once in a while.

Do not hesitate to ask your veterinarian any questions you might have

Remember, your veterinarian is your partner in protecting your kitten’s health and helping properly socialize your pet, so don’t hesitate to ask them any questions you might have. Not only can veterinarians give you socialization tips, they can also help you identify and solve any behavioral problems that you may notice with your kitten. Don’t think that you have too many questions about your kitten for your veterinarian. It is better to err on the side of caution, and veterinarians will always be willing to help you forge the right socialization path for you and your kitten to follow.


Summary
Jumping cartoon

Caring for and raising a kitten may seem intimidating, but with the right socialization techniques it doesn’t have to be that way. Just remember to properly socialize your kitten at the right time, educate yourself on the resources available and be sure that your veterinarian is involved. By following these simple recommendations, you will have a well-socialized, happy kitten that is well on its way to becoming an important and rewarding life partner.


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Leslie Sinn, DVM, CPDT-KABehavior Resident and Member of the Virginia Veterinary Medical Assocaition (VVMA)

Leslie Sinn, DVM, CPDT-KA (Certified Pet Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed), behavior resident, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists is a member of the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association (VVMA), a professional organization of veterina...

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