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Young kittens, like most newborn animals, are usually virtually fearless, but as they mature, they can gradually become less trusting of new situations and things. And a little fear is normal — a healthy dose of it could literally save their lives. But if they grow too fearful, it can make simple, everyday events difficult, like meeting new people, going to the veterinarian, interacting with a dog or riding in the car.
Whether your cat will become more trusting or more fearful depends in part on his genetic makeup but also on what he learns, especially during the period of socialization, which is between 2 and 7 weeks of age, but can extend up to 14 weeks of age. During this time kittens learn to become accustomed to different people, animals, experiences and environments.
The goal of the socialization period is to provide the kitten with positive interactions associated with new people, pets, places and handling procedures. For example, this is the time to help the kitten feel comfortable with his carrier by placing treats and toys inside so he associates good things with it. Short trips in the car, with treats in the carrier, can help him get accustomed to the ride. And as he gets more comfortable, a trip to the veterinary clinic or groomer for nothing more than a short visit where treats or toys are dispensed will help him feel less stressed for future visits.
At this time, it's also important to help your kitten feel comfortable with being handled by different people and in different ways. Now is the time to provide positive experiences associated with brushing his coat, handling his paws and ears and even running a finger over his gums, so grooming, nail trims, dental care and veterinary visits will be more pleasant for him in the future.
Without proper socialization, it's easy to see how a kitten can become fearful. If your kitten is handled by strangers and bathed and brushed for the first time without any positive praise or treats the first time he visits the groomer, he may associate the visit with a negative experience. If the same thing happens on the next visit, he may also become fearful of anything associated with the trip, including the carrier and the car ride.
Now imagine if that same kitten had been brushed at home and lavished with treats and praise and had been gradually accustomed to the carrier and car in positive ways. If the kitten had also had a short visit to the groomer where nothing but good things happened, chances are, he would be more comfortable and less fearful for the eventual grooming appointment.
Cats may show their fear to different stimuli in different ways. Fearful cats tend to hide, run away or show signs of aggression. They may have dilated pupils, hiss, flatten their ears to the side or back of their heads, arch their backs or appear to have their hair standing on end. It's important not to provoke a fearful or aggressive cat.
The sooner you can address a fear the better. Start with a visit to your veterinarian for help in identifying the cause of the fear and learn behavior modification tips, such as desensitization and counterconditioning, to help make your feline feel more at ease.
It's important to recognize fear in your cat, so you can take the steps necessary to address it and help him be calmer and happier for the rest of his nine lives.
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