Cat Behaviour: Socialisation for Dummies

A well socialised kitten will be a pleasant companion, with good manners. It seems as though everything I read about getting a kitten says that the breeder should have raised it to be a nice, friendly, and to be a well behaved pet. I couldn’t agree more, and if you bought your kitten from a responsible breeder, this would have happened.

But what if it was your own little girl who fell pregnant before you’d realised that she was old enough?  What will you do to socialise the kittens?

Vets tell me that they frequently deal with pet mogs who have unplanned pregnancies. As I write this (early spring) my complex is being visited by a tabby kitten who is very much overdue to spaying. You do not have to wait until your cat is six months old to spay her (or neuter him – it takes two to make kittens). You may have to look around to find a vet who is willing to do it, but it can be done as early as 10 weeks, with certain precautions. If the cat weighs over two kilograms there should be no difficulties. But if you slipped up, and you do have an unplanned litter of kittens, here are some guidelines.

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What is “SOCIALISING?”

The modern term for a pet is “companion animal” and this says it all. A well socialised kitten will be a pleasant companion, with good manners. But how do you teach your kittens manners?  When and where do you start?
Mom-cat is in charge: If you were to visit a responsible breeder who has tiny kittens, you might well hear them say to the mother cat “may I look at your babies?”  This attitude recognises that the mother cat is charge. If she is comfortable with you looking at her babies, even handling them, that is fine. If she is not, you must leave them alone.   If you have children, you may have to be very strict, but they must leave the kittens alone.  It is a good idea if one person, whom the mother cat trusts, weighs the kittens once a day, as the first sign of a problem will be weight loss. Bedding must be changed daily, and the bed kept warm, and most new mothers enjoy being stroked and told how clever they are, but the baby kittens should be left to do nothing but eat, sleep and grow.

Mom-cat and babies should have a box in a quiet room, where they will feel safe.

Don’t be alarmed by the screaming kittens when Mom-cat returns to her nursery (they are demanding milk), but do check if they cry at other times, and make sure that one kitten is not consistently being pushed off the nipple by stronger kittens (this is one reason for weighing the kittens).

At around five to seven days old, the kittens’ eyes will open. Keep the lighting dim, to avoid damage to the new eyes.

By two to three weeks of age, the kittens will be able to control their own body temperature, can hear and will begin to explore. You can begin to handle them a little more, picking them up and holding them close to you, singing lullabies, and so forth.   As you want them to grow up loving humans, and wanting contact with humans, it is important that their interactions with you are pleasant. If Mom-cat demands that you put the kittens back in their box, that is what you do.

By four weeks, you will have a boxful of tiny hooligans. They’ll be constantly trying to escape, wrestling with each other, and ready to learn how to be wonderful cats.  Remember, though, that they still needs lots of sleep, and must be left to sleep as much as they want.   In fact, you may sometimes need to insist that they nap – just like human children!

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How to Be a Good Pet?

Think about what most people want from their cats: to live in their homes, be friendly, and easy to handle. This sounds obvious, but these are all learned behaviours.

Your kittens must be exposed to household activities. Noises such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners must be as familiar as their mother’s purr, so don’t wrap them in cotton wool. Be very careful, though – they’ll be into everything, and they’ll chew everything as their teeth erupt. Keep electrical cords covered (Cable Twirly is useful), keep the toilet seat down (kittens are likely to drown if they fall in the toilet) and never start the washing machine without doing a head count.

They must get used to all kinds of people and animals. If you have other cats, dogs and a constant flow of visitors, this will be easy. If you are a bit of a recluse, you will have to work harder, borrow children and make sure that the kittens meet everyone who comes to your house. I once had a somewhat shy Burmese whom I wanted to show.   When I needed a plumber, his rather surprised assistant found himself holding my kitten (Phoebe went on to compete at Cat of the Year).

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