by Geoff Williams
You wouldn't think that there would be much of a method, or even a reason, for socializing kittens. They're adorable. Everybody loves them. What more do you need to know?
Quite a bit, actually. In fact, we do kittens a disservice when we don't actively attempt to socialize them, says Shawn Simons, the founder of Kitty Bungalow Charm School for Wayward Cats, based in Los Angeles, California. And don't let the name fool you. It is a nonprofit with a serious mission: to rescue feral street kittens and turn them into beloved pets.
"When people adopt dogs," Simons says, "we're told how to crate train the dog, leash train them, and given all of this information on how to care for the dog. When people adopt a cat, they're given a box to take home. You open the box and say, 'Welcome home.' And that's the extent of how most people introduce a cat into their home."
You know how cats are perceived as aloof, independent, and sometimes even uncaring? If you socialize a kitten, many experts say that you can avoid that.
"My cats, they follow me around like dogs," Simons says of her own cats, Big Boy and Brewster, a Maine Coon and a Tortoiseshell, respectively. "They love strangers and other people. They're both incredibly social."
So if you have a kitten, or will be getting one in the near future, and you want to know how to socialize your newest addition to the family, remember the following.
There is a Best Time to Socialize a Kitten
If you have a cat with kittens, as you can likely guess, that first day or even week isn't the time to grab one and start showing him or her around your home. But it won't be long before you can start the socialization process.
"The primary and most important age for socializing a kitten is between three to nine weeks of age,” says Miranda Workman, a clinical assistant professor in the Animal Behavior, Ecology and Conservation department at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. “However,” she adds, “they should remain with Mom, if possible, throughout this period." Workman is also the chair of the cat division for the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, which is headquartered in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania.
It's important for the kitten to remain close to her mother because "cats identify social partners during this phase," Workman says. "They begin building social bonds with other cats starting toward the end of week three."
And around the same time, kittens start thinking of non-cats, like humans and your dog or pet rabbit, as social partners, too, Workman says, provided, she adds, that their encounters with non-cats are done safely and it's a good experience for all.
"Ideally, socialization with non-cats should begin no later than week five," Workman says.
But if you adopt a kitten older than five weeks, or you end up adopting an older feline, don't make the mistake of thinking that just because you've missed the ideal window that you can't socialize your cat. For instance, Simons's cats—the ones that follow her around like dogs—were adopted as feral adult cats.
Tips for Socializing Kittens
OK, so you have your kitten and you want to socialize him or her. Beyond you or your kids playing with the kitten—which is a great way to socialize—what should you be thinking about?
This is extremely important. Would you like to be able to put your cat in a cat carrier without hearing shrieks and having to get a new wardrobe because your outfit has been shredded by claws? In that case, Workman suggests, "Take a few short trips that end in good and fun experiences."
In other words, let your kitten see that if she goes into the cat carrier, she will get a treat, or maybe you'll take her to your sister's house to play with her children instead of going to the veterinarian.
Another smart move, if you're really taking socialization seriously, is to "visit the vet's office just for fun—no vaccines and exams," Workman says. "The more comfortable your kitten is with the vet office experience, the easier it is for your vet to do a thorough job as your cat's healthcare provider."
Just as you train a dog with treats, you can do a lot of behavior modification on a kitten with a favorite snack.
Simons suggests having a bowl or bag of something your kitten loves near the front door.
"When people come over, have your friends—or the mailman, Amazon driver, whomever—give your kitten a treat. If your kitten gets a treat every time people come over, your kitten will start looking forward to people coming over rather than running away and hiding," she says.
Throw a pizza party
Sure, it sounds weird. A pizza party for a cat? "Yeah, have a pizza party," Simons says.
The pizza is for you and your friends. But if you invite a bunch of people over, this is your chance to get your friends and family to hold and pet and handle your kitten, and for your kitten to get used to enjoying having company over.
"It breaks down that anxiety very quickly," says Simons, who has a brigade of volunteers who train feral kittens by giving them what she calls "forced love."
"Force may not be a great word," she concedes, "but love is."
Think about space
"Cats like to be master of their universe, but we decide how big that universe is," Simons says. "Think of how when you look at all the stars, and your mind can be blown at how big the universe is. It's the same with kittens. You want to introduce them to a small space at first, like a room, and not your entire apartment or house."
She suggests blocking off areas at first, "like babyproofing, that you don't want them to turn into their clubhouse." She suggests closing off the underparts of your bed as well, at least for a while.
"You don't want to spend the next 11 years reaching for your cat under the bed," she says.
Workman agrees that space is important. "Leave the carrier out with the door open, a nice blanket inside and maybe some treats tossed in," she suggests. "Let the kitten explore and have the option to leave the carrier. You might find, like my cats, that they will use the carrier as a safe sleeping spot if you do this."
Keep Socializing, Even When Your Kitten is a Grown Cat
At some point, especially if your kitten is social and growing into a friendly cat, you might think your work is done. But it really isn't (and hopefully this doesn't feel like work).
"Just because the initial, critical socialization period is between three to nine weeks of age, learning doesn't stop at nine weeks of age," Workman says. "All individuals, human and non-human, continue to adjust their behavior based on their experiences throughout their lifetime."
So keep giving your cat new, safe, and positive experiences, Workman urges.
Kittens are a blast, of course, but Workman says that if you socialize your kitten, or even start socializing an older cat, the fun won't end.
"Some of my most endearing experiences have been with older, senior cats who were, maybe for the first time in their lives, given choices and allowed to control what happens to them in their environment," Workman says. "They are fascinating animals who never fail to amaze me."
This article was verified for accuracy by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM.