Raising a Behaviorally Healthy Kitten

Raising a healthy kitten takes more than just picking the right food, going to the vet for a check up, and keeping them safe from physical dangers. A kitten’s mental and emotional health must also be considered. Kittens that don’t have the right experiences when they are young can grow up to have a range of behavior problems, from fear to aggression to litter box issues. Raising a behaviorally healthy kitten should be a priority for every owner and it all starts with socialization.

What is Socialization?

Socialization is the process of exposing a young kitten to different people, sights, sounds, experiences, and places in a controlled, positive way. It sets the youngster up to be more confident and tolerant as an adult. Socialization is not the same process as helping an adult cat overcome their fears.

Orange kitten with ping pong ball
Credit: Pixabay/Platus

Why is Socialization So Important?

During a kitten’s early life, they are learning what is safe and what might be dangerous. The associations they make when they are young can last for the rest of their life. Anything a kitten has a positive experience with will be put into the safe category. But as they grow up, they will become less trusting of new things. Unfamiliar things and situations are more likely to be labeled as “potentially dangerous.” This can lead to fear and aggression when a cat is confronted with something they find scary. 

Kittens that have been properly socialized are more likely to be confident adults and to be tolerant of handling and stress. Since stress causes many health and behavior problems in cats, growing up to be able to handle change and mild stress is important for all cats. Socializing your kitten is like getting them their kitten vaccines – you’re protecting against future problems and keeping them behaviorally healthy. 

It’s important to know that only positive experiences get labeled as “safe.” If something scares your kitten during their socialization period, it can have the same long-lasting impact for the rest of their life, but in a bad way.

When Should Socialization Happen?

As early as possible. Kitten enter their critical socialization period as early as 3 weeks so if you are raising kittens in your home, you should start getting them used to handling at a very young age. However, most of us don’t get to meet our kittens until they are more than 8 weeks old so start socializing your kitten as soon as they come home. The experiences they have before they are about 15 weeks old will have the greatest effect. 

If you have a kitten older than 15 weeks, they may already be more cautious of new things. You can still help them by carefully introducing them to new experiences in a positive way. You will probably have to go slower than with a younger kitten to ensure they aren’t overwhelmed or scared but an older kitten can still benefit from being exposed to new things.

How Can You Socialize Your Kitten?

The most important part of socialization is that the kitten must have a positive experience. Scary or overwhelming situations can have an enormously negative effect on your kitten’s behavior in the future. Pair each experience, place, or person with something the kitten really enjoys to increase the positive impact. This could be food, treats, playtime, or petting as long as your kitten is clearly loving the experience.

Beyond that, there are a few other important factors:

Lot of Things: The more experiences your kitten has, the more people they meet, the more places they see, the easier time they will have accepting and enjoying those things in the future. 

Lots of Choice: Never force your kitten to interact. Expose them to new things at whatever pace and level is comfortable for them. 

Lots of Repetition: Don’t do it just once! Your kitten should not just meet your kids but also your kids’ friends and your neighbor’s kids. Practice putting them in their carrier and giving treats, not just once but on a regular basis.

What Should Your Kitten Experience?

Think about the future when socializing your kitten. Maybe you don’t have kids or a dog now but what about in 5 years? What life could your cat have later if they became familiar with a harness and leash or with riding in the car now? 

You may not be able to cover every possible experience but taking the time now to expose your kitten to many different things will make it more likely that they grow up confident and able to handle new situations as an adult.

This list isn’t complete but is meant to help you think about what your kitten could experience:

  • People: All ages, genders, races plus people who use devices like wheelchairs or walkers. 
  • Sights or Sounds: Doorbells, alarms, umbrellas, vacuums, etc.
  • Touch: Petting and handling all over, nail trims, grooming, teeth brushing, etc
  • Equipment: Brush, nail clippers, harness and leash, carrier, etc.
  • Situations: Riding in a car, going to the vet, being left alone, etc
  • Other animals: Other cats, dogs, birds, etc

Try Kitten Kindergarten

Tabby and white kitten in tunnel
Credit: Pixabay.com/Daga_Roszkowska

While puppy classes are now common in nearly every part of the country, kitten socialization classes are just catching on. These classes provide an environment for kitten owners to give their kittens positive experiences with new people, other kittens, veterinary equipment, and more. You’ll also learn how to work on or avoid common behavior challenges like scratching, playful aggression, or litter box issues.

Socializing your kitten is an important part of raising a healthy cat. Without socialization, your cat may grow up to have issues with fear or aggression. They may be less able to handle stress and may react to necessary life changes with behavior problems like litter box avoidance. Take the steps to help your kitten grow up happy and healthy.

If you need help raising a behaviorally healthy kitten or overcoming challenges in an adult cat, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.