Do you have a new kitten? Many cat owners do not realize that socializing kittens is as important as socializing puppies. Temperament in a cat is related to genetic makeup and early experiences. Early, positive and safe exposure to a variety of stimuli and experiences can greatly help a kitten’s confidence, social behavior, ability to handle stress and ability to be handled by their family. You can help to determine your kitten’s temperament and personality by working with it as soon as you bring it home.
Kittens have a primary (between two and seven weeks) and secondary (seven weeks to six months) socialization period that extends from the time that kittens’ eyes and ears open to the time of adolescence. Cat brains are most malleable up to seven weeks of age, but socialization does not stop abruptly then. Kittens can continue to learn and change up through their adolescent period, which starts at six months.
This critical developmental period represents the timeframe when kitten behavior and personality can be adapted to fit owners’ individual needs. Often, kittens demonstrate behaviors that are developmentally normal but undesirable. With appropriate information and guidance, owners can understand and prevent unwanted behaviors while nurturing and encouraging preferred behaviors.
Studies show that increased handling of kittens has many benefits. Time of onset, number of handlings, and amount of handling all affect a kitten’s preference and tolerance for handling and social interaction. One study showed that the earlier, the longer, and the more people who handled the kitten, the healthier the feline would be. Cats handled 15 minutes daily from three to 14 weeks approached a person, and stayed on a lap longer than cats that did not receive this handling.
Since the upper end of the sensitive period is seven to nine weeks, every effort should be made to socialize prior to this age. Treats and toys can be used to make social interactions and being handled a positive experience for them. Learning should be reward-based to increase behaviors that are desirable. Clicker training can be valuable for shaping and timing. Punishment should be avoided, as it leads to fear and avoidance.
Classes are valuable for socializing kittens, exposing them to a variety of situations and stimuli that they might experience in life, and teaching owners about normal behavior and how to prevent behavioral problems. Offering these classes in a veterinary clinic will help the kittens (and owners) develop positive associations with the veterinary clinic and staff.
Topics may include feline communication and body language, the cat's behavioral needs and how they can be met. Additional topics may include reward-based training and clicker training, enrichment, handling (including for medical care), making veterinary visits positive, litter-box management, carrier training, harness training and managing undesirable behaviors.
Understanding normal feline behavior and development is necessary to adequately meet the kitten's needs. Many of the most common undesirable behaviors in cats can be effectively addressed by understanding and meeting these needs. Prevention is key to eliminate the common feline undesirable behaviors.
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