Kitten Kindergarten: Socializing Young Cats

By: Heather McCauley, DVM

TVMA Member
Rockwall, TX

Published October 2015

Socialize Cats At A Young Age

Good nutrition and medical care are important in a growing kitten’s life, but positive early social experiences are now thought to be just as important. Introduction to a variety of animals and people in a calm, controlled environment can result in an adult cat who is relaxed, outgoing and more able to cope with the typical household without resorting to the method cats usually use for stress relief—using their owners’ expensive carpets for a potty!

Kittens’ best window for socialization is when they are between the ages of 2 and 7 weeks. They are curious and receptive to new smells, sights and activities. From 6 to 12 weeks, they develop eye-paw coordination and can play with others. After 14 weeks, social fighting and fearful playing begin, so it is suggested that group socialization classes begin and end prior to 14 weeks of age, much earlier than the customary puppy and dog obedience classes. Owners of cats older than 14 weeks can still attend and benefit from the classes while their cats remain at home.

Socialization Sessions Are Vital

Socialization sessions are usually brief, perhaps an hour in length. Vaccines and other preventive care must be up-to-date, and the room should be carefully “kitten-proofed.” All family members are encouraged to attend so the kittens become accustomed to children and seniors, males and females. While the kittens are still in their carriers, they can be looked over for any signs of runny eyes, skin disease, external parasites or other health problems.

One important lesson is teaching the participants to play with the kittens using toys, feathers, food treats and “jungle gyms,” while avoiding the use of hands and body parts, which might inadvertently teach the kittens to bite. Other points can include how to interpret cat body language, how cats’ senses operate differently from humans, proper litter box care, how cats can be trained to sit, walk on a leash or do tricks, come when called and so on.

Once the kittens are allowed out to explore, some gentle demonstrations of common restraint positions can be performed while giving plenty of food treats so that the kittens will learn that these strange positions, such as lying on their side, being fed from a syringe or holding a paw out, are fun and involve delicious rewards. Future trips to the animal hospital could be much less stressful for all concerned, especially if the owners reinforce these lessons at home!

Forming Habits Early

Socialization is about more than playtime. It means learning to tolerate and accept the presence of other species, ages, sizes and temperaments. Some kittens will play together while others will explore objects and ignore each other. The goal is to form habits that will help cats be less flustered by life events such as owners’ changing schedules, family moving in or out or the sight of neighborhood animals appearing in the cat’s “territory.”

Many veterinary practices are now offering information on socialization and behavior as part of their kitten visits or holding small group classes right in the clinic. One of the best parts of kitty preschool is the lifelong benefit of having a cat that knows that a trip to the veterinarian means yummy treats, chin rubs and lots of interesting toys!

Long-time cat lovers and those new to the cat world may be pleasantly surprised to find how quickly kittens take to the experience, easier than puppies in most cases, and what a difference this can make for years to come.

Heather McCauley, DVM, is a graduate of University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine who lives near Rockwall, Texas. Dr. McCauley practices as a relief veterinarian serving the eastern Dallas metroplex to Tyler areas for McCauley Veterinary Services.