Kitten Season! The Importance of a Good Start in Life

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Sandra McCune for the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS)

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Kitten season is upon us! A new kitten in the house brings laughter and joy; their entertaining antics, extraordinary bursts of energy alternating with long periods of deep sleep, confident affection and endless desire to play are never dull. Or is your kitten a little more hesitant than that? Are they still finding their way in this big, new world they have found themselves in without the protection of their mum and littermates?

If you are responsible for a kitten’s first few weeks of life, then you have an incredibly important job to do to ensure it is appropriately socialised so that they have the best chance of growing up into a healthy, happy, friendly cat. If you have recently had a kitten join your family, then you also have a critical role in supporting their physical, emotional and behavioural development as they mature into adulthood and beyond! Cats given the best start in life are more likely to form strong, positive attachments with their owners. The work of SCAS has shown just how important that bond is to the well-being and health of you and your cat.

Early Socialisation

Your kitten’s response to new people and to new surroundings are largely determined during their first couple of months of life. Preparing a kitten to cope with the challenges of the world in which they live is one of the most important ways to ensure a lifetime of good welfare. After this time, a fear reaction becomes fully established in the kitten, therefore positive experiences with novelty are optimal before the Sensitive Period for Socialisation which occurs between 2-7 weeks of age when kittens are highly responsive to the formation of social bonds. This is the period when a programme of socialisation should be introduced to ensure your kitten grows up to be friendly and confident with people and with the challenges of a normal domestic home environment. Kittens who have experienced appropriate early socialisation will be far less likely to experience high levels of stress, fearfulness, timidity or of developing behaviour problems as an adult.

So, what should be included in your kitten’s early socialisation programme? Cats Protection’s video helpfully explains the importance of early socialisation and how to go about it. Gradual and systematic exposure to new experiences should be managed carefully in very short sessions initially, extending to longer times as they mature. A Socialisation Chart developed by Cats Protection provides a comprehensive check-list of the experiences your kitten should be exposed to including handling, meeting people and other pets, playing with toys, and a variety of sounds, smells and textures.

Selecting your kitten

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Given most kittens stay with their mum until at least 8 weeks of age, it’s important to select a kitten that has had positive experiences before they move to your home. The sensitive period does not come to an abrupt halt at 7 weeks of age but is thought to tail off gradually. Socialisation, training and playing with your cat will remain an important part of your relationship throughout its life.

Health and behavioural issues are common in poorly sourced kittens. They are often inadequately socialised and may not have the skills they need to grow up into a happy, healthy cat without a huge amount of work. Empower yourself! Do your research before your kitten arrives. Use the Cat Group’s Kitten Check List to guide you. Your kitten should come from a reputable breeder if it’s a pedigree. Find out about different pedigree establishments, speak to someone who has bought kittens from them before. Look for trained individuals and good premises with regular veterinary supervision.

Sourcing from an animal shelter can also be a great option. Shelters are great places to find neutered, vaccinated and house-trained kittens and cats. There’s a great sense of satisfaction in knowing you’ve provided a homeless animal with a loving place to live, and your adoption will free up a place for another kitten in need. And if you have questions or concerns after your kitten joins your family, good shelters will provide post adoption support.

A lifetime of good welfare

Most owners in the UK keep their cats safe, happy and healthy. Owners also have legal obligations to meet their cat’s welfare needs. Understanding of a cat’s 5 welfare needs translates to real differences in how they are looked after and is an important part of responsible pet ownership.

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Meeting your kitten’s welfare needs during their early months and into adulthood will give them the best start for a lifetime of health and happiness.

For more information about the bond between you and your cat, visit the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS).

For more science-based information on understanding your kitten and helping them grow into a happy, healthy cat, try these cat science writers

Zazie Todd (2022) Purr: the science of making your cat happy, Greystone Books, Vancouver.

John Bradshaw (2013) Cat Sense: the feline enigma revealed. Penguin, London.

John Bradshaw & Sarah Ellis (2016) The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat, Basic Books, New York.

Dennis Turner (2014) The Domestic Cat: the biology of its behaviour, 3rd edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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