Preparing a kitten to cope with the human world and its challenges is one of the most important ways to ensure their lifelong welfare. Without careful consideration of their development, they may develop into an adult cat that will struggle to cope within a normal domestic setting. A kitten that has been appropriately socialised will be far less likely to experience high levels of stress, or even to develop behaviour problems as an adult.
The socialisation period refers to a specific time period in the life of a kitten – from two weeks to eight weeks old. At this point, a kitten’s brain and sensory system are still developing and the stimuli they encounter influence how this development occurs. Everything from who they meet, to the environments they encounter, will teach them whether what is happening is threatening or non-threatening.
Positive experiences with different people and different things will teach them that these experiences are non-threatening. However, any negative experiences, or no experiences at all, can cause a kitten to become fearful – a feeling that is likely to last into adulthood.
As a species, the domestic cat does not have an inbuilt need to be with people or to enjoy handling. A kitten’s ability to tolerate, or even enjoy, the company of humans, is learned during this socialisation period. If a cat is to be confident and happy in adulthood, positive experiences as a kitten are essential.
There are a number of benefits from a cat welfare point of view as to why socialisation is important. It is essential for a kitten to have a chance of growing up into a healthy, happy adult cat.
Whether you’re working at a rescue, you’re a breeder or your cat has had an accidental litter, it is your responsibility to look after the welfare of the cat – even if they are not staying with you in the long term.
As a rescue organisation or breeder, you’ll need to follow a socialisation plan in socialising your kitten, such as our socialisation chart, to ensure that the cat will become a happy adult.
There are a number of key things that your kitten should be gradually exposed to in the first two to eight weeks of their life. On socialising your kitten, they should experience:
different people (at least four, ideally including a male, female and child)
handling (including elements of vet handling, such as looking in their ears and handling their paws)
sounds (you can find out more about sound socialisation below)
litter trays and types of litter
Kittens that don’t have frequent controlled exposure to common sounds during their socialisation period are more likely to become stressed by certain noises during their life, or develop noise phobias. Most owners have experienced, or know someone who has, a cat that is fearful of common noises – thunder, fireworks or the vacuum cleaner, for example.
Use our CD or online sound library to socialise your kitten to household sounds. You can find out more about how to use these sounds below.
1) The more realistic the recording sounds, the more effective it will be. Find which device you can play the online audio or CD on, preferably the device with the best sound quality. However, the online sounds can be played from a standard smartphone or tablet.
2) Test the sound volume when the kittens are not in the room, so as not to spook them. Set the volume to a very low level so that it is barely audible. Note what volume the speakers or device is at. You'll need to make sure that mum isn't spooked by sounds either, especially if she wasn't socialised as a kitten herself.
3) When the kittens are back in the room start playing the audio at your marked low volume. It is important to play through all sounds at least once daily so the kittens become well socialised to all the different noises they may encounter when they are in their forever homes.
4) If there are no adverse reactions from the kittens with the sound at the current level then you can leave the sounds playing through. You do not have to stay with them during this time. However, it is important that if the kittens do have an adverse reaction to the sounds, you stop playing them and try a lower volume on a different day.
5) If the kittens do not appear fazed by the sounds you can systematically increase the volume day by day, repeating steps 2-4. Aim to play through the library of sounds at least once daily. Increase the volume of sounds slowly.
6) Continue this process until the kittens are eight weeks old. Remember, if at any stage the kittens look uncomfortable or fearful, return to a lower volume. Never make a sudden jump in volume as this could spook your kittens.
All kittens should not be rehomed until after eight weeks old – whether you adopt your cat from a breeder or rescue organisation. As a result, your cat should be already socialised. By knowing what socialisation is, and what to look out for, you’ll be in a better position to discuss with the establishment that you receive your kitten from.
If you do take on a kitten from an establishment that does not socialise kittens or has poor standards, you may be taking on a kitten that has a higher chance of having poor welfare or may develop higher levels of stress and behaviour problems through its lifetime.
Unfortunately, yes. There are three key areas where things can go wrong with kitten socialisation.
Firstly, people often neglect the relationship with the adult female cat. Establishing a trusting relationship prior to the arrival of the kittens will make socialisation for the kittens far easier. While this can often be difficult in a rescue environment, many organisations will try and establish this relationship well before kittens arrive.
Secondly, it is important to consider infection control. This is more prevalent for rescue centres and breeders, rather than individual litters at home, but is still something to keep an eye on. Use personal protective equipment when interacting with the kittens to avoid passing on anything nasty from other cats.
Thirdly, people can expose the kittens to too much and not respond when the kitten is indicating that they are distressed. When socialising a kitten, always make sure you respond to them. Start slow, allow them to approach you initially and when introducing handling, do it for short sessions.
Avoid holding a kitten for long periods of time – seconds can be enough in the first instance. If the kitten vocalises or looks distressed, stop. Simply prolonging the experience or ‘flooding’ the cat can have a long-term negative impact.
Download and use the chart to ensure that you are following a systematic socialisation plan for your cat. This chart was developed by Dr Rachel Casey and Cats Protection to cover all the essential areas of socialisation during two to eight weeks.
Download the chart
Feral cats are the same domesticated species of cat as our pet cats. However, feral cats have not had any positive exposure to humans or the domestic environment during the socialisation period. This lack of socialisation leads feral cats to be fearful and avoid people.
You might notice that when you come across a feral cat, they may approach you in exchange for food. However, this is not an indication that they want or have the same needs as a pet cat.
Often, trying to expose feral cats to human contact and the domestic environment after the socialisation period can be detrimental to their welfare. For this reason, it is usually not possible for feral cats to be homed.