The first 12 weeks of a kitten’s life make a lasting impact on how she relates to others. This part of kittenhood is the ideal time for her to become socialized. Socialization is the process by which kittens learn to develop relationships with other individuals in their environment, be they human, feline or another animal. If kittens aren’t adequately socialized during this critical age, they may become fearful or aggressive toward people and other animals or in situations to which they were not acclimated.
Learn from Mom
One important way that kittens learn is by observation, and they learn much by observing their mothers. At around 4 weeks old, kittens learn from their mothers where to use the bathroom. Queens also teach their young to hunt by bringing them prey when they’re around 5 weeks old. Food preference is also influenced by their mothers.
“Sometimes people remove kittens too soon from their moms,” says certified cat behavior consultant Marilyn Krieger. “Kittens learn important socialization skills from their siblings and their moms.” A kitten should stay with their mother and littermates for their first 12 weeks.
Kittens also learn boundaries from their mothers. “When they are too overstimulated — for example, playing too rough with their siblings or mom — the queen will let them know through various behaviors, including hissing, head bops, removing the kitten or herself,” Marilyn says. “The kitten will learn that if they behave a certain way, there are consequences. Sometimes that means the object of the kitten’s affection briefly disappears.”
Learn from play
From interactions through play with their littermates, kittens learn boundaries, Marilyn says. When they get too rough, the siblings will let them know through vocalizations and briefly ceasing to interact with the overstimulated sibling. It doesn’t take long for the kitten to learn not to bite so hard or play too rough. They let each other know if it’s too much, and they learn to play with less intensity.
Playing with their littermates also hones kittens’ coordination, develops their muscles, helps them mature and interact with each other — vital skills for cats in a multi-cat household.
Learn from people
“Kittens should be handled by people when they are very young,” Marilyn says, adding that they should be around people’s scent, the vibrations and sounds of footsteps and the bustle of people. People who live with kittens, including breeders, should raise kittens in the home interacting with people; they should not be in cages. Ideally, they should have more than one person to interact with in the household.
Marilyn says people should never force themselves on cats but should take cues from them and allow the cats to have the choice of advancing to socialize or retreat. The key is to set up situations where cats feel safe and secure and want to fraternize.
At around 3 to 4 weeks old, encourage them to come to you. Crouch down and extend your index finger toward them. If they want to socialize with you, they will come to you, touch your finger and turn their head to mark you with their cheek. Scent glands on their cheeks produce “friendly” pheromones.
“At that point, it’s an invitation for you to pet them on the side of their face and their heads,” Marilyn says. If they rub the side of their body against your hand, you can pet them along their side. “Allow them to make the choice.” This gives the kitten a sense of security around people that they will take into adulthood.
Also, at around 3 to 4 weeks of age, use playtime to socialize your kitten. Play with her a couple times each day using interactive toys, which simulate the hunt and help her develop her fun, prey-catching skills. Allow her to catch the toy and immediately give a treat.
Do not let your kitten play with your hands or feet, because you do not want to encourage her to bite or scratch people. Sadly, a lot of kittens end up in shelters because of biting and scratching behaviors.
Not all kittens spend 12 weeks with their mothers and littermates and are socialized to humans during that time. If kittens haven’t been socialized properly, you can still socialize the kittens or adult cats, but it will probably take longer, Marilyn says.
“If you have a kitten that didn’t learn social skills or boundaries when overstimulated or playing too hard, which happens commonly with bottle-fed kittens, you can give them a time-out by stopping all interaction with the kitten,” Marilyn advises. “Turn around and leave the room. Timeouts for play aggression are short — one to two seconds should be enough. The kitten quickly learns that when she’s over-stimulated, her favorite person is no longer available. Never scold, hit or scruff. The time-out has to happen when the kitten is overstimulated and biting.”
Marilyn once had a 2-year-old male cat who had been feral. “He lived under the sofa for one year,” she says. In that situation, you want the cat to associate everything good with you.
“I would sit on the floor near his hiding spot and never approach him,” she says. Every time he saw her, she fed him a yummy treat. She did this for a year until he finally came out. “The older they are, the longer it takes for them to feel safe and secure enough to socialize.” He ended up being a lap cat.
However, not all cats become lap cats. “People need to adjust their thinking wherever they are in their socialization process,” Marilyn says. “Cats are perfect, whether they are fearful and skittish or they are beginning to socialize. When people relax their own attitude and expectations, the socializing process is easier and seems to progress faster. Cats are very sensitive and pick up on stress. It’s about giving them choice and helping them feel safe and secure.”
When your kitten chooses to sit on your lap or near you and purrs or looks at you with squinting eyes (the equivalent of a feline smile), you have earned trust and formed a bond that can last a lifetime.