How to Socialize a Kitten

Kitten playing with toy
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Use toys rather than hands to play with your kitten and he'll be less likely to bite and scratch your hands as he grows older.

What makes some cats friendly, calm and cooperative while others are more likely to run and hide — or hiss and swat — when confronted with new people or situations? While these differences are influenced in part by genes, they're also influenced by experiences, and especially by early experiences. The process of exposing a kitten to the things he'll encounter later in life is called socialization, and while socialization is accepted as an essential part of raising a puppy, it's too often ignored when it comes to raising a kitten. But you want your cat to live as part of your family, which is why socialization is so important. 

The Benefits of Socialization

A well socialized cat is easier to groom, travel with, take to the veterinarian and show off to visitors. Socialization is fun. It involves exposing your cat to new people and experiences while he's still a young kitten. It also involves introducing him to the concept of training. Once cats learn to do one thing on command, it makes it easier for them to learn other things. And the best time to teach your cat the first command is when he's very young. 

How to Socialize Your Cat

  • Handle and cuddle your kitten often. From the time you get your kitten, he should be handled daily, with progressively more cuddling and playing as he gets older. Pick him up and gently stroke him while speaking softly to him for at least five minutes a day. Practice holding him while sitting and walking around the room. Place him on a chair and gently stroke him. Gradually touch more and more of him on successive days. During this time your kitten will be bonding with you and learning that people are part of his family, as well as learning that being touched is no big deal. Special care should be taken not to play roughly with him.
  • Groom him routinely. Grooming is a great way to get your cat used to your touch and to help the two of you bond. Gently brush him, giving him treats and petting him as you do. Examine his ears, open his mouth, hold his feet, extend his claws and feel his body all over.
  • Expose him to the crate and car travel early. You'll need to drive your cat to the veterinarian throughout his life, and you may also want to travel with him, so it helps if he can ride contentedly in his secure crate. Start slow — wait until he's hungry or sleepy to put him in the crate and give him a special treat once inside. Do this a few times— or as long as it takes until he's comfortable in the crate. Then you can place the crate in the car and practice driving around the block.
  • Use toys rather than your hands as play objects. Otherwise he'll grow into a cat who bites and scratches at your hands in play, leaving your hands bloody. Playing is important for furthering the bond between you and your kitten as well as for increasing your kitten's self confidence.
  • Introduce him to new people. Have one or two friends come over and gently hold and play with him several times a week. They can offer him special treats so he comes to associate new people with good things. Don't let him be overwhelmed by a room full of people, or by overly raucous or attentive children. Always supervise children so they don't chase or frighten the kitten. If a baby is in your future, you may wish to play tapes of babies crying or even introduce him to a friend's baby.
  • If you plan on getting a dog in the future, you may want to also introduce your kitten to a cat-friendly canine. Have the dog's owner bring him to your house. Keep the dog on leash (and muzzled, if you have any doubts about his friendliness) and don't allow him to chase your kitten. No matter how cat-friendly the dog is, it's best to keep the animals separated because a large dog could injure a kitten with a playful pounce.

Feral Kittens

Feral kittens may require special socialization. Initially, don't let a feral kitten loose in the house, where he can run and hide. Instead, keep him confined in a cage or other small space where he can be monitored more easily. The cage should be near a part of the house where the kitten can see and hear people. When you're not home, turn on a television so he can hear human voices.

Offer him food several times a day so he associates you with good things. Gently stroke him, approaching him from an angle (not directly from the front) and rubbing his head, ears and chin. Most feral kittens will be afraid of being picked up and may scratch in an attempt to escape. If you wrap him in a towel you won't get scratched as easily and you're less likely to drop him if he does try to scratch you. Don't push the issue; hold him for only a short period at first, gradually increasing the time over the next few days. Holding him on your lap when he is sleeping is sometimes helpful.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to socialization, it’s quality, not quantity, that counts. Good intentions can too often lead to bad results if you overwhelm your kitten. You need to introduce new experiences gradually, never pushing your kitten past the point that he’s scared. Fear is easy to learn but hard to unlearn. Don't stop socializing just because your cat is no longer a kitten. He never stops learning — although it's true that he'll likely never again learn at the rate he's learning now.

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