How to socialise your kitten

How can we ensure our kittens become well balanced, sociable cats? Follow these invaluable tips...

In cats, shyness and boldness are, to some extent inherited; shy mothers and fathers tend to have shy kittens and bold parents tend to produce bold kittens. However, kittens' personalities are by no means fixed for life.

"A timid kitten can become more bold as he matures," says behaviourist John Bradshaw, "so long as he doesn't encounter anything unpleasant when he does pluck up the courage to do something brave. Conversely, a brave cat can turn into a scaredy-cat if he is mistreated, or gets hurt when he pushes his luck once too often. Studies of kittens growing up suggest that in some cases only about 20 per cent of an eight-week-old kitten's personality persists into adulthood; much of the rest may be derived from experiences during adolescence and young adulthood."

However, it is crucial that kittens have the right kind of experience during the socialisation period (the first eight to 10 weeks of life). If they do not meet people at this stage, they will almost invariably be frightened of people for the rest of their lives, irrespective of whether they are the shy type.

Nip bad behaviour in the bud

Poorly socialised kittens often become very nervous cats and can develop behaviour problems so it's vital that kittens have lots of positive experiences of everyday sights and sounds. The sound of the vacuum cleaner or doorbell, travelling in a car, meeting other pets or young children - everything he encounters is new and potentially frightening. But as long as these experiences are positive, kittens should grow into confident, well adjusted cats.

Most kittens are still at home with their mother during their socialisation period, so it is up to the owner or breeder to make sure that the kittens are well socialised. You should then continue to give your kitten lots of positive new experiences when he arrives at his new home.

If your kitten finds the vacuum cleaner and other such noises unpleasant, do things normally - there's no need to tiptoe around. If he appears frightened don't reassure him; he has to accept it is normal.

Most kittens are fully house-trained by mum so all you need to do is show your kitten where his litter tray is and remind him every time he wakes up and after eating. If you see him looking for an alternative corner and he begins sniffing and scratching, gently place him in the litter tray. He will soon work out what the tray is for.

These early and consistent lessons in good behaviour are important to stop bad habits developing. The age at which social maturity is reached varies between individuals and can be from 18 months to four years old. This is the stage when any problems will arise, usually due to other adult cats.

Even if cats have grown up together, cracks may begin to appear in their relationship. They may start to compete over territory, such as fighting over a favourite bed, and this can create stresses leading to a variety of illnesses, including urinary tract disease, or inappropriate behaviours such as marking.

Cat behaviourist Vicky Halls says: "A cat that has had a good grounding as a youngster will be more able to cope with these difficult times. Even if it simply means that he understands that he can find his own space, and develop strategies to help him cope with a situation."

Make learning fun

Play is important for kittens because it increases their physical coordination, social skills and learning limits.

"We should never stop playing with our cats, no matter how old they are, and remember that play is about predatory behaviour," says Vicky. "Think about your cat as a wild animal. A kitten needs to mature on both a physical and emotional level."

Creating a stimulating environment for your kitten and providing toys that encourage natural behaviours will help to prevent boredom, while continuing to pet and talk to your kitten will help him develop good 'people skills'.

Playing with toys can also avert biting tendencies. Vicky says: "Play is all about hunting and chewing and it can be a rewarding sensation for a kitten to bite into flesh. The more he does it the more he will want to." Key advice is to distract your kitten with a toy as soon as he starts this type of behaviour.

If he becomes too rough when playing, stop the game immediately and say 'no'. Remember, boisterous behaviour that can seem fun in a kitten can develop into problematic behaviour when the cat is fully grown.

Vicky says it's also important to let your cat behave like a cat and not take his self control away: "The cat is such an independent and self-reliant creature. They will want to be on their own sometimes so avoid confrontation and don't be over-protective."

Good behaviour

While your kitten should receive a thorough examination from your vet, regular home check-ups of his ears, eyes, fur, skin and bottom will help alert you to any problems. Rewarding him with a treat when you have finished will teach your kitten to associate this experience with a positive outcome.

There will also come a time when you have to take your kitten to the vet or maybe the cattery and you will have to use a cat carrier. If you don't want a disappearing kitty every time he spots it, make sure he doesn't think every appearance will result in an unpleasant experience. Leave the carrier in the house so he can rub himself against it and mark it with his scent. Tempt him inside with treats so he will learn to associate it with a reward.

Good behaviour should always be rewarded, so he learns what gets him attention and nice things, and inappropriate behaviour tackled by removing the cause of it. Never smack or tell him off if he makes a mistake as he won't understand and you could be at risk of spoiling the relationship you have built up.

And finally, remember sleep is essential for health, growth and development, so don't be tempted to wake him up for a cuddle. Leave him in peace!

This feature was originally published in the July 2013 issue of Your Cat Magazine.