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Socializing Your Kitten: What You Need To Know

Want a friendly, confident cat? The way you raise a feline during early kittenhood plays a huge role in achieving that goal.

There’s a critical period in kitten development — between four and 14 weeks of age — when a kitten’s personality is shaped by their experiences. During this time, a kitten’s brain is like a sponge, soaking up all of their encounters and storing them away for future reference.

If they’re socialized — meaning they get lots of handling by people and exposure to different sights, sounds, and experiences — they’ll be self-assured and sociable when they face these people, sights, sounds, and experiences as an adult. Without this crash course in kittenhood, they can grow up to be shy, skittish, and not very friendly.

Here are a few things you should know about kitten socialization.

Time With Mom Affects Socialization

Ginger cat breastfeeding her little kittens. Motherhood, parenting, care. Orange cat nursing kittens at plaid blanket and blue rustic wood background. Kittens suck milk.
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The age at which your kitten leaves their mom can also affect development. Traditionally, kittens can go to new homes at six to eight weeks of age, but knowledgeable breeders and shelters keep their kittens until twelve 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.

They can also have more trouble adjusting to their new home and getting along with other cats because they never learned how to behave toward other felines.

Don’t worry that a kitten won’t bond with you if you bring them home after their twelve-week birthday. If anything, they’ll be a much better companion.

How To Pick A Kitten Who’s Been Socialized

Portrait of sad tabby and white kitten cat looking through cage behind bars waiting for adoption with siblings
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A kitten who already received the benefits of early socialization will almost certainly be easier to raise into a friendly, outgoing adult cat. For that reason, you may want to consider adopting a cat who already has a good base of social skills.

It’s easy to tell if a kitten has good social skills. Here are a few things to look for:

  • The kitten has had plenty of handling and exposure to different sounds, sights, and experiences. A quality shelter or rescue group will do this for kittens they take in.
  • They’re confident and eager for attention from people. They enjoy being held and petted and will follow people around.
  • They recover quickly when startled by an unexpected noise such as a hand clap.

If the kitten is younger than ten weeks of age, you can still make up for poor socialization. Even feral kittens can be turned into people-friendly cats and be adopted if they’re caught and handled before they’re ten weeks old. After that point, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to socialize.

If you have sympathy for a cat with poor socialization training and consider adoption anyway, keep in mind that they may never become perfectly social or comfortable around new people and pets. However, if you’re fine with having a cat who’s more reserved and aloof, this may not be a problem for you.

How To Socialize Your Kitten

Two Girls Stroking a Kitten
(Picture Credit: Sebastian Pfuetze/Getty Images)

Socialization isn’t just up to the shelter or rescue group; you need to keep it up once your kitten comes home.

Even if your kitten hasn’t received any socialization so far and missed the window where training soaks in more naturally, your efforts can still help your cat learn social skills in many cases. They may not take to it perfectly, but their skills can still improve.

Here are a few tips:

  • 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 them to lots of different people. Just make sure to stay safe and use good judgement during this pandemic.
  • Introduce them to dogs. Just make sure to pick cat-friendly canines, and supervise their meeting so no one gets hurt.
  • Expose them to household sounds such as blenders, TVs, and vacuum cleaners — anything they’re going to be hearing throughout their life.
  • Consider signing up for a kitten kindergarten class where they can polish their social skills with other kittens and people, learn tricks, and practice good behaviors like using a scratching post. You’ll learn how to read feline body language, communicate with them, 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 them throughout their life. It helps keep them sociable and mentally agile.

Have you ever socialized a kitten at home? Do you have any tips for people who might want to adopt a kitten? Let us know in the comments below!

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