The early weeks of a kitten’s life are crucial for its development in terms of socialization. Socialization is the process by which kittens develop relationships with other individuals in their environment, including humans, feline, or other animals. During these first 12 weeks, if a kitten is not properly socialized, it may become fearful or aggressive towards others or situations that were not acclimated.
One of the most important ways in which kittens develop is by observing their mothers. By about 4 weeks old, kittens learn from their mothers where to use the bathroom, and around 5 weeks old, mothers start teaching their young to hunt by bringing them prey. Food preferences are also influenced by their mothers; therefore, it’s crucial for kittens to stay with their mother and littermates for their first 12 weeks. Through their mother, kittens also learn boundaries, and when they’re too overstimulated, their mother will use various behaviors such as hissing, head bops, or removing the kitten or herself.
Interaction through play with littermates is also a significant way in which kittens learn boundaries. When they get rough, their siblings will let them know through vocalization and, at times, briefly ceasing interaction with the kitten that’s overstimulated. It doesn’t take long for the kitten to learn not to bite too hard or play too roughly. Additionally, playing with their littermates helps develop coordination, muscles, and interaction skills, which are vital for cats in a multi-cat household.
Kittens must also interact with humans from when they’re young. According to certified cat behavior consultant Marilyn Krieger, breeders should raise kittens in a home where they can interact with people and not in cages. Ideally, they should have interactions with more than one person in a household. Additionally, people should never force themselves on cats but should take cues from them and allow them to have the choice of approaching or retreating. Therefore, the key is to set up situations where cats feel safe and secure and want to socialize.
Around 3 to 4 weeks of age, it’s vital to encourage kittens to approach humans. Crouching down and extending your index finger towards 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. At that point, it’s an invitation for you to pet them on the side of their face and heads. Additionally, at around 3 to 4 weeks of age, use playtime to socialize your kitten. Play with them a couple of times each day using interactive toys that stimulate the hunt and develop their prey-catching skills. However, it’s crucial to avoid letting them play with your hands or feet as it encourages them to bite or scratch people.
Not all kittens spend 12 weeks with their mothers and littermates, and therefore, they may not have been sufficiently socialized. In such cases, you can still socialize the kittens or adult cats, but it will take longer. According to Krieger, if you have a kitten that didn’t learn social skills or boundaries when overstimulated or playing too hard, you can give them a time-out by stopping all interaction with the kitten, turning around, and leaving the room. Timeouts for play aggression are short, with one to two seconds being enough. The kitten quickly learns to associate overstimulation with her favorite person no longer being available. Additionally, never scold, hit, or scruff the kitten.
Marilyn Krieger had a 2-year-old male cat who had been feral and lived under the sofa for a year. She would sit on the floor near his hiding spot and never approach him; every time he saw her, she fed him a yummy treat. She did this for a year until he finally came out. The older cats are, the longer it takes for them to feel safe and secure enough to socialize. It’s therefore crucial to adjust your expectations and give the cats choice and help them feel safe and secure.
In conclusion, getting your kitten socialized during its first 12 weeks of life is crucial as it determines how she relates to others. Kittens learn through observation, play, and interactions with humans, which is why it’s essential to provide those opportunities. When properly socialized, kittens will develop into friendly, happy, and confident cats that can bond with you, and that bond could last a lifetime.