Lots of cats have a reputation for being shy, running to hide under the bed when guests come over, or refusing to come out of their carrier at the veterinary clinic. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Your cat might never have the open and outgoing nature of a Labrador Retriever, but he can learn to enjoy meeting people and being touched if you are able to socialize him from an early age.
Socialization is the process of exposing a kitten to new experiences, sights, sounds and people. Between the ages of 4 weeks and 14 weeks, a kitten’s brain has its greatest capacity for learning and memory. The things a kitten learns during this time will stick with him throughout life, so you want him to have lots of good experiences to help him grow up to sociable and self-assured.
How do you socialize a kitten? It’s not quite the same as socializing a dog. “Kitten kindergarten” classes aren’t very common or even really necessary, so what’s a kitten owner to do?
First, make sure your kitten comes from a stimulating environment. Whether he’s a randombred tabby or a pedigreed Pixiebob, he should already be used to household sounds and being petted or held by people. Kittens who aren’t handled or are handled very little before they are 10 weeks old are much more difficult to socialize.
It’s easy to tell if a kitten has a good start on socialization. He’s confident and seeks out attention from people. He doesn’t struggle when he’s held, at least not very much, and he’s not afraid to play with toys, even if he hasn’t seen them before. He startles, then recovers quickly, after hearing a loud or unexpected noise.
It’s ideal if your kitten stays with his mother and littermates until he is at least 12 weeks old. Being with them through that age will ensure that he learns important lessons about being a cat and getting along with other cats, and he will still bond with you easily.
Once you bring your new kitten home, make sure he continues to meet lots of different people. A lot of times we think we are doing a good job of socialization, but what’s really happening is that a kitten is meeting the same people over and over. Expand his horizons. Take him out to meet the mail carrier, invite the new neighbors over — it’s a good excuse to meet them — and ask all of the vet techs and the receptionist at your veterinary clinic to give him a pat or a smooch on the head. Borrow a cat-friendly dog or two so he can get some cross-species exposure. Take him for car rides — just for fun. A trip to the drive-through teller at the bank or a stop at Mickey D’s is just the thing for getting him used to going places.
A kitten’s early experiences have the greatest influence on his personality, but don’t look at 14 weeks as a “best by” date. Exposing your cat to varied experiences, places, and people and teaching him to do different things throughout his life can help keep his brain flexible.