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What is my cat thinking?
Gwen Bailey

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Socialising a Litter of Kittens

What is socialisation?

Socialisation involves meeting and having pleasant encounters with many adults, children and other animals. Kittens also need to get used to different experiences, environments and situations so they are not shy and scared in later life.

Friendly or frightened?

Kittens that are well socialised make successful, more rewarding pets.

Cats that are not scared and can be handled without becoming aggressive, usually live longer, happier lives with people. Shy, undersocialised cats are disappointing to live with and can spend much of their time being aloof with their owner and hiding away from strangers.

It’s easy and fun!

Playing with kittens is fun and if you add some structure to your interactions using the information in this page, your maturing kitten will really benefit. Socialisation is not difficult, but requires consistent effort every day, until the kitten is mature.

The sooner the better

The ideal time for meeting people and other animals, and becoming familiar with things in the environment is between 2 and 7 weeks of age, just before kittens become more cautious of new experiences.

During this time, the kitten is usually with the litter, so where your kitten comes from will make a big difference to how friendly and confident it is, especially with pedigrees that do not usually go to new homes until 12 – 13 weeks.

The kitten you acquire should be friendly and outgoing with people and other animals and readily accept any new situation they may find themselves in.

Socialisation in the new home is needed to build on the good foundation begun by the breeder. It may also be necessary to make up for lost time, particularly if the kitten was not adequately socialised in the litter or was unwell.

Continued efforts until the kitten is at least one year old will result in a friendly, confident, outgoing adult.

Think kitten!

All encounters should be enjoyable. Supervise visitors, particularly children, and watch your kitten constantly for signs of anxiety or becoming overwhelmed. If this happens, remove it from the situation or give it more space and freedom to approach in its own time. Kittens like to hide if they are worried, so provide a safe haven so that they can retreat and come out again when they feel safe. Kittens are inexperienced and will get themselves into trouble easily. Plan ahead and try to prevent unpleasant events. Arrange for all encounters to be successful and rewarding.

Being successful

Use the ‘Weekly Socialisation Programme’ chart every day to help you achieve and record progress (available from The Blue Cross). Put this in a prominent place so that all members of the family can take part in the process. Review your progress at the end of the week and wipe clean ready for the next 7 days.

People needed

Meeting adults and children is the most important item on your socialisation programme.

Try to arrange for different friends and relatives to visit on a regular basis, as soon as your kitten has settled into your home. As well as adults of all ages, it is important that kittens meet and have pleasant encounters with children, including toddlers, school-age children and teenagers. Brief people carefully first and carefully supervise to ensure that the kittens have enjoyable experiences.

Play and handling sessions

Ask visitors to sit down, make them comfortable and allow kittens to approach in their own time. If the kitten is happy to approach, they can talk to them, stroke them, pick them up, handle them and encourage them to play with toys. If not, ask them to ignore the kitten until it gets more confident, being particularly careful to avoid making eye contact.

It is a good idea to have daily handling sessions with your kitten. Keep these short, splitting one long session into several shorter ones. Gently teach your kitten to accept being handled all over, particularly along the belly. Get it used to being groomed, particularly if they are of a long-haired variety. Gently acclimatise it to a more rigorous examination of ears, eyes, mouth and tails. It is also useful to encourage your kitten to play with toys and introduce procedures such as tooth brushing.

Animals needed

If you have other animals around, your kitten will socialise with them naturally as they are encountered. If you don’t, it is a good idea to get friends or relatives who have well-behaved dogs to visit soon after your kitten has settled in. In this way, your kitten will learn that they are part of life, and will not overreact when they encounter them later.

Ensure that the dog is safe with kittens and is not likely to chase, bite or frighten them. Carefully supervise each encounter. Let the kitten approach in it’s own time, allowing it to keep it’s distance if it want to.

Different experiences and environments

Kittens benefit from growing up in a household environment. If this is not possible and they have to be raised in a cattery, extra time and attention will need to be given to make up for the natural socialisation that occurs in a busy household. If this has not been done, your kitten may need extra time to get used to all the new things it will encounter in a house that other kittens take for granted.

Ensure that your kitten has a varied and complex environment including a variety of objects to explore such as boxes, old shoes, tennis balls, as well as ledges, shelves and walkways onto which it can jump and climb (although these shouldn’t be too high when it is very young in case it falls off). A climbing frame on which your kitten can learn balancing skills and improve its strength and co-ordination will be useful.

Provide objects for your kitten to scratch, such as commercial scratching posts or large tree branches (use something non-poisonous such as apple and make sure it has not been sprayed by pesticides). This will help to ensure that it does not learn to scratch the furniture.

Kittens need to get used to being transported in a cat carrier and to car journeys, so begin early. When very young, place your kitten in a carrier and get it used to being shut inside, then to being carried and, later, taken for short journeys in a car.

Different smells

Since a cat’s primary sense is that of smell, part of the socialisation process involves getting used to different scents. This can be achieved by hanging pieces of cloth in different places, such as a veterinary surgery, or wiping them on a baby, another cat or a dog, and then introducing these cloths to your kitten.

This may not seem very important to us as humans, but it can play a big role in the process of familiarising kittens with the world outside.

Special needs for some kittens

Some kittens are more reactive and sensitive than others and are likely to need more socialisation as a result. A kittens’ temperament is very dependent on the temperament of the father, and on the conditions in which they have been raised.

Shy kittens will need special attention to ensure they grow up to be sociable.

More time will be needed for handling them, and they will need to be exposed to more people and more experiences than docile kittens, if they are to grow up to be suitable pets.

Keeping safe from diseases

Vaccination v. socialisation

Young animals are more susceptible to disease before their immune systems have had a chance to become fully effective. However, it is possible to balance the requirement to minimise the risk of infections with the requirement to socialise kittens well.

Kittens acquire some immunity from their mothers if she has been fully vaccinated, which protects them during the early weeks. This fades over time and needs to be replaced by immunity stimulated by vaccinations. Vaccines (e.g. Nobivac) against cat ‘flu, feline enteritis and feline leukaemia are usually given from 9 weeks of age.

Worms and children

Newborn kittens become infected with roundworms from their mothers, but they can be wormed as early as two weeks of age.

It is important that you use an effective wormer (e.g. Panacur) to help prevent young children becoming infected with the larval form of these worms (they can't pick up the infection from fresh faeces).

Kittens need much more frequent worming than adult cats so you should discuss a worming program with your vet to make sure they are being wormed as often as necessary. It is also important that you clean the litter box frequently to prevent re-infection.

For hygiene reasons, encourage both adults and children to wash their hands after playing with the kittens.

Perfect pets

Making the effort to socialise is always worthwhile.

Good socialisation can make the difference between shy, introverted cats with behaviour problems, and happy, outgoing, confident cats that live life to the full.

Breeders Practical socialisation – What to do

Keep environment friendly and safe but not unnaturally quiet Keep the mother present during socialisation if she is friendly and confident

Weeks 1 – 2
Gently lift and check each kitten daily

Weeks 3 - 4
Handle and groom each kitten individually daily
Introduce kittens to cloths with different smells
Put novel objects in with the kittens daily
Provide shallow litter trays with a variety of different litters
Provide kittens with ad libitum supply of food
Provide a varied environment with objects and structures to climb
Give opportunities for exploration of new surfaces

What’s new in weeks 4 – 5
Arrange for adults and children to visit
Give small tasters of different kitten foods, dried and canned

What’s new in weeks 5 onwards
Encourage kittens to play with toys
Provide scratching post or tree branches
Provide opportunities to meet other animals
Get kittens used to being examined more thoroughly
Familiarise with cat carriers
Acclimatise to car journeys

Please also see What is my Cat Thinking

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