How Not to Raise a Fraidy Cat — And What to Do If You Live With One

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There is nothing more fun than watching a kitten learn and grow. Young cats are clever and adventurous, and their brains make new connections daily — if they receive the right environmental stimulation and socialization very early in life. How a kitten's personality develops depends on the kind of handling and interactions he experiences in those first few weeks.

Kittens begin learning and developing behaviors at a very early age. Their eyes and ears, closed at birth, start to open in the second week of life. When that happens, they begin taking in everything around them: sights, sounds, smells, the touch of people.

Between weeks two and five (and possibly extending to week seven), kittens experience rapid brain development as they soak in the world. The more stimulation a kitten receives during those critical early weeks, the more friendly, intelligent and curious he will be.

Bringing Up Baby

When a kitten gets this kind of early socialization, his brain stores positive (and negative) experiences and calls on the memories later in life to help him know how to respond to new situations. The more positive experiences a kitten has, chances are he will be more adaptable as an adult.

Negative experiences may cause him to become fearful of harmless incidents such as strangers visiting the home or unexpected noises. Those fears can cause a cat to become shy, anxious, inactive, aggressive or unwilling to do anything outside his comfort zone. He may be less willing to explore, play or greet people. Visits to the veterinarian, guests at the holidays or a move to a new home can be ordeals — for the cat and for his family.

It’s best if you wait to bring a kitten home until he’s 12 to 16 weeks old. Most people get kittens when they are 7 or 8 weeks old, but a longer stay with Mom and littermates helps them develop more fully, with better perceptual, motor and social skills. They are usually less fearful of change and tend to adapt more easily to their new home.

Of course, waiting until 16 weeks to bring your kitten home means that you can’t be there to make sure a kitten receives daily handling from many different people and gets exposed to the sounds of vacuum cleaners and clothes dryer buzzers, encounters with friendly dogs and cats, and other positive experiences. Ideally, though, you can choose a kitten who has had this kind of upbringing.

The exception to this rule is if you want a kitten you know isn’t being well socialized by the person who has the litter. Then you should go ahead and bring him home so you can provide an enriched environment yourself, including meeting lots of different types of people and going for car rides (in a carrier, for safety) to the drive-through window at the bank or your favorite fast-food place. Even though kittens learn most rapidly when they are 2 to 7 weeks old, you can still make a lot of headway with socialization until they are approximately 6 months old.

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