Kitten socialization

By Jennie K. Willis, PhD as printed in the Coloradoan in January 2013

There are abundant resources for puppy owners when they adopt a new pup but fewer options exist for kittens.  Kittens are very intelligent and highly curious, especially when they are young.  Their brains are open to new experiences during development and they can make the most of these opportunities.  Socialization is what we call systematic exposure to experiences and things they will normally encounter in life.  When they see and hear those things at a young age, they can incorporate them into their repertoire of what is known.   If your kitten is already afraid of those things, then it is not socialization.

What to include in a socialization program for your kitten:

  • New people.  Try to introduce your kitten to a lot of different visitors, especially of different ages and genders.  Ask visitors to drop treats for your kitten and not actively engage your kitten until they feel comfortable approaching your guest.
  • Get out of the house.  Introduce your kitten to a harness and leash early on and tie it to new and interesting experiences.
  • Take rides in the car.  Take rides often when you are not going to the vet, always bring treats, and make stops where your kitten can get out and explore on a leash.
  • Introduce a crate.  Having a safe way of transporting your kitten in the car is really important.  Feed your kitten their food in the crate every day so they get used to going in and have a positive association with the crate.
  • Other kittens.  Talk to the agency you adopted your kitten from to see if they can help arrange play dates with similar aged kittens.  This can go a long way towards learning to communicate as a cat.
  • Other animals.  Kittens should have some exposure to friendly dogs or puppies while they are young and inquisitive so later if they need to adapt to a dog in their life, it won’t seem so foreign to them.
  • Grooming.  Practice brushing and nail trimming when your kitten is young so they are used to these sensations and experiences when you actually need to groom them later.  Touch them all over their body, especially their feet, ears, mouth and tail.  Pair these touches with food if this is challenging.
  • Noises.   Exposure to household noises of different types while they are young can help them handle noise later on.

Consider socialization and early training as an investment.  If you make frequent deposits in your kitten’s bank account early, they will be more valuable than making deposits later on.  Your kitten’s mind is open to new experiences for particular windows of time during their early growth and the first 14 weeks are the most influential times in a cat’s life.   Choose safe places to go and vaccinated animals to contact since your kitten’s vaccination schedule won’t be completed until after this valuable time period.


Dr. Jennie Willis is an instructor of animal behavior at Colorado State University and owns a private consulting business, which provides counseling for problem pets and their people. For more information about consultation, seminars and classes please visit

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