Cats are often wrongfully characterized as being aloof and disinterested in their human companions. Some may even call them reclusive. While this may be the case for a small number of cats, the truth is that we know of many highly effective socialization techniques that will help your cat to become comfortable and happy in his or her home and around people.
Researchers have found that the period of time where cats acclimate the fastest to new environments or situations is between the ages of 2 and 7 weeks old. Exposing kittens to humans, other animals, and a home environment during these formative days can greatly increase the likelihood that your cat will feel comfortable living in a human world.
However, do not despair if you adopt a kitten after it is seven weeks old! Socialization is an important part of bonding with a new animal, regardless of its age. Young cats over 7 weeks of age are still going to be more receptive to learning than fully grown cats, and all of the following suggestions will still be beneficial to your cat even if you have missed that 2 to 7 week developmental window. It may take a little longer for you to see results, but even older cats can benefit from consistent socialization.
So, what comprises effective socialization? The first and most important component is early handling. This step can begin a few days after a kitten is born, provided the mother lets you handle her children. If she does, you can briefly pick up, hold, and gently pet her kitten. After 2 weeks of age, you can begin to handle them for longer periods of time and to introduce them to the different scenarios which they will encounter later in life.
We know that the more situations you expose your cat to in their early days, the better. You can’t predict every situation your pet will encounter, but here are a few common situations to help get you started:
Car rides and being in a carrier or box
Meeting and being around other pets
Being handled by as many different and new people as possible
While you are introducing your cat to these situations, it is also helpful to provide them with positive feedback that will help them associate what they’re doing with comfort and safety (for example, petting or offering a treat).
Interactive toys are also a great way to play with your kitten and teach them to enjoy their time around humans. Some toy ideas are:
Wand toys with feather or streamers (extensions that will catch you kitten’s eye)
Toys that dispense food or treats (this will provide some added motivation on the behalf of your cat)
Toys that make noises, light up, or move around
These are some of the basic tools you can use to help develop your kitten’s coordination and promote comfort and trust towards humans. Cardboard boxes and scratching posts are also great tools to add to your socialization arsenal.
As you begin to play with your kitten, he/she may start developing the bothersome and potentially dangerous habit of treating human fingers and toes like toys, swatting and biting at them in what he/she believes to be a playful gesture. To intervene and teach your cat that such behavior is unwanted, we recommend redirecting their attention to a well-liked toy as soon as they begin to play rough with a human. This will gently shift your kitten’s attention and train them to look for other avenues for play.
Finally, have patience, and remember that you want to stimulate your cats as much as possible without overwhelming them— overly aggressive or excessive socialization efforts may end up scaring the cat and having the opposite of the intended effect. The goal, generally speaking, is to expose your kitten to diverse and new experiences in a positive way that will help them associate the activity or situation with safety rather than danger.
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