There’s a critical period in kitten development — between four and 14 weeks of age— when a kitten’s personality is shaped by her experiences. During this time, a kitten’s brain is like a sponge, soaking up all of her encounters and storing them away for future reference. If she’s socialized— meaning she gets lots of handling by people and exposure to different sights, sounds, and experiences— she’ll be self-assured and sociable when she faces these people, sights, sounds, and experiences as an adult. Without this crash course in kittenhood, she can grow up to be shy, skittish, and not very friendly.
The age at which your kitten leaves her mom can also affect development. Traditionally, kittens have gone to new homes at six to eight weeks of age, but knowledgeable breeders keep their kittens until 12 weeks. During the additional time with their mother and littermates, kittens learn important lessons such as bite and scratch inhibition — how to use their teeth and claws cautiously — as well as other perceptual, motor, and social skills.
Bring your new kitten home too early, and you risk getting a cat with behavior problems such as separation anxiety, obsessive sucking or chewing on objects, and poor litter box habits. She can also have more trouble adjusting to her new home and getting along with other cats, because she never learned how to behave toward them.
Don’t worry that a kitten won’t bond with you if you bring her home after her 12-week birthday. If anything, she’ll be a much better companion.
How to pick a kitten who’s been socialized
It’s easy to tell if a kitten has good social skills:
- Look for a kitten who’s had plenty of handling and exposure to different sounds, sights, and experiences. A good breeder will do this, as will a quality shelter or rescue group.
- Look for a kitten who’s confident and eager for attention from people, who enjoys being held and petted and follows people around.
- Look for a kitten who recovers quickly when startled by an unexpected noise such as a handclap.
If the kitten’s younger than 10 weeks, you can still make up for poor socialization. Even feral kittens can be turned into people-friendly cats and adopted, if they’re caught and handled before 10 weeks of age. After that point, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to socialize. Do your best not to let sympathy for a tense or shy kitten affect your choice.
How to socialize your kitten
Socialization isn’t just up to the breeder or rescue group; you need to keep it up once your kitten comes home.
- Expose your kitten to many kinds of people — men, women, people wearing eyeglasses or hats, people who use wheelchairs or walkers, and so on. Meeting the same eight friends or neighbors over and over again doesn’t count; you need to introduce her to lots of different people.
- Expose her to dogs. Just make sure to pick cat-friendly canines, and supervise their meeting so no one gets hurt.
- Expose her to household sounds such as blenders, TVs, and vacuum cleaners — anything she’s going to be hearing throughout her life.
- Consider signing her up for a kitten kindergarten class, where she can polish her social skills with other kittens and people, learn tricks, and practice good behaviors like using a scratching post. You’ll learn how to read her body language, communicate with her, and reinforce use of the litter box. This is ideal if you’d like your kitten to become a therapy cat.
Although your kitten’s experiences during the early weeks and months are the most influential, continue to socialize throughout her life. It helps keep her sociable and mentally agile.
Bottom line: To get a well-socialized cat, pick a kitty who was handled frequently and exposed to lots of different people, sights, sounds, and experiences in early kittenhood. Keep up the socialization once you bring your kitten home, and don’t forget to make plenty of time for playtime.