Happy, bored, playful, worried?
Imagine a world where all cats were friendly and sociable with members of the family, children, and other animals, could be shown off to visitors, were clean in the house and happy to venture outside or stay in as we wished; a world where cats that sprayed in the house, scratched the furniture, or were aggressive to humans, were a thing of the past.
All too often, bad behaviour shown by cats has its origins in a lack of social contact and environmental stimulation during kittenhood, while still with the breeder, and during the early months with the new owner.
In days gone by, kittens were exposed to a whole host of people, other pets, children, and visitors as they grew up in the hustle and bustle of a busy household.
There was no need to make a special effort to ensure they were properly socialised because it happened naturally.
With the proliferation of owners looking for a pedigree kitten, more and more cats are beginning their lives in the relatively sterile confines of a well-run cattery.
In addition, more people these days are living in childless, quiet families, so even good old moggie kittens don’t always get the socialisation and habituation they so badly need.
Timing is everything as far as correct development of kittens is concerned. Relatively few studies have been done, but scientists agree that the critical period for socialisation is between 2 and 7 weeks.
During that time, kittens need to meet and have pleasant encounters with a whole variety of humans, including toddlers, school-age children and teenagers, if they are to grow up friendly and sociable.
On top of that, they also need to get used to all the noises, smells and activities that occur in an average household.
Ensuring that kittens get such exposure is not difficult if they are raised in a busy household, but becomes much more difficult in a cattery where each queen is kept in isolation, particularly if several litters arrive together.
In addition, not all breeders understand the need for socialisation, and some do not have the time, or realise the importance of the process.
Many do not know about the sensitive 2 – 7 week period, or appreciate that as kittens get older, they find it more difficult to accept unfamiliar encounters or experiences.
So often, it is left to the new owner to acclimatise the kitten to people, children, other pets and household noises.
Unfortunately, by 12 weeks, the window of opportunity is firmly shut and it is incredibly difficult to overcome an undersocialised kitten’s natural fear of the unfamiliar.
Since many pedigree cats have less reactive
Unfortunately, it is often not until later as the kitten matures, that spraying and toileting problems in the house and other behaviour problems, become apparent.
Unfortunately, many cats are given up to shelters every year or abandoned by their owners.
Many of these have difficulties because they have been poorly socialised.
Sadly, many of these cats are pedigree and have been bred in good faith by caring breeders and purchased by well-intentioned owners.
No one is expecting problems, but the cats we see are almost invariably showing signs of insecurity and fears associated with inadequate experience during kittenhood.
Problems of not being able to cope with the smells brought in on peoples shoes, spraying by the French windows whenever children play in the next door garden, or spraying on the toaster and plug sockets when unfamiliar dogs walk past the kitchen window, are just a few examples of problems caused by fear that have origins in lack of early stimulation.
What is particularly sad about these cases is that the problems could have been easily avoided had adequate steps been taken during those early months. Socialisation isn’t difficult, but it does require knowledge and a bit of effort at the right time.
Even kittens born in a cattery can be adequately socialised if enough effort is made by the breeder.
Extra effort is needed if you cannot bring the kittens into the house, as the house has to go to the kittens!
This means that sounds, sights and scents that we take for granted need to be transported to the kittening area.
This is not as difficult as it seems.
Cloths made of natural fibre, e.g. cotton, can be hung up in the kitchen, bathroom, vets surgeries etc and placed in the kitten’s run, so that they become familiar with the smells of the world that will be about them when they are placed in homes.
Sounds can be recreated on tape and played to the kittens every day (see www.soundsscary.com for recorded noises). Sounds such as babies crying, children playing, thunder, fireworks and vacuum cleaners are also needed.
Of course, they are not as good as the real thing, as they lack the sights and vibrations associated with reality, but they can go a long way to overcoming fears that can be caused by being reared in a quiet cattery.
A lot can be done if a little effort is made every day.
The amount of effort needed will increase steadily as the kittens mature and can take more in.
If litters are spaced so that only one litter is being dealt with at the time, it is possible to give them all the time that is so badly needed.
Care should be taken not to overwhelm kittens with too much at once, but time is of the essence and it is important to get on with it and do several things every day.
Kittens growing up in a household are likely to have the advantage over kittens reared in a cattery because they will get used to things we take for granted more naturally.
However, an effort still has to be made to ensure adequate socialisation takes place and enough variety of encounters and experiences occur during the sensitive period.
Getting enough visitors can be difficult, unless you have lots of friends who are prepared to visit at the appropriate time.
Adverts in your veterinary surgery or local library could produce a flurry of people interested in playing with kittens (care needs to be taken when inviting strangers into your home!).
It’s quite a nice job and many families with
children are only too happy to visit.
Try to get the husband of the household to come along too, as many kittens grow up with only female carers and get a big surprise when they go to their new home and meet a man for the first time.
Many breeders are put off the idea of socialisation because they are concerned about the health risks to the kittens involved.
This is understandable since kittens’ immune systems develop slowly, and they are very susceptible to disease until they are older. However, it is possible to socialise kittens adequately, and keep them free from disease - if sensible precautions are taken.
Vaccination from the age of 9 weeks is essential to help protect them against the major diseases, but if all socialisation is saved until after the vaccinations have taken effect, it will be too late to socialise and habituate properly.
Risks can be kept to a bare minimum if breeders are careful, and producing well-adjusted kittens that live a happier life is well worth it.
Please see What is my Cat Thinking
and also Gwen Bailey's article on Socialising a Litter of Kittens