Kitten socialisation and behaviour

Early and consistent lessons in good behaviour are important to stop bad habits developing in kittens. 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.”

The importance of play

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’. Play 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. If you want to save your house from destruction, keep you kitten entertained with plenty of play and exercise.

Play is a great way to bond with your new kitten as well as helping him develop natural hunting, running, pouncing, leaping, grabbing and even biting behaviours (toys, not you!) — while also getting him used to some of the experiences he’ll encounter when he’s older. 

Active play is the best form of exercise for kittens and, as they must be kept indoors when young, they rely heavily on owners to get them moving. 

Two kittens will play together but bored kittens will make up their own games. As well as opening your home and furniture to a good clawing, if you don’t give your kitten toys to satisfy his hunting instincts, be prepared for frequent presents of birds and mice once he’s allowed outside! 

Tips for playing with your kitten

  • Cats’ eyes identify movement and pattern rather than colour, so toys with stripes or those that move are ideal
  • A fishing rod-style toy will encourage your kitten to pounce and jump, but make sure the ‘prey’ on the end is securely fastened
  • Don’t use games that teach your kitten to pounce on moving hands, fingers or feet. This could cause problems later on as an adult cat’s bite can be serious
  • Avoid toys with small parts that could be swallowed
  • Cats are most active early in the morning and in the evening so make time toplay with your kitten then 
  • A scratch post will allow your kitten to stretch his muscles and condition his claws
  • Don’t give your kitten wool or string to play with as he could swallow it or it could become tangled around his tongue
  • A few cat treats hidden around the house or in a treat ball will encourage your kitten to hunt them out
  • Throw broken toys away immediately
  • Only keep a couple of toys out at any one time, and swap them round regularly to prevent boredom.

Socialising your kitten

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.”

Orphaned kittens or those weaned too soon may fail to develop appropriate social skills. They are more likely to exhibit suckling behaviours, such as sucking on blankets, pillows or even their owner’s skin. Poorly socialized kittens can become nervous cats, so it’s vital that kittens are exposed to as many new sights, sounds, people and animals as possible.

Kittens who are well handled during their first seven weeks tend to be more exploratory, playful and better learners. However, while these stages are important, a cat’s mind remains receptive to new experiences and lessons well beyond kittenhood so it’s vital that interaction continues throughout life.

Training your kitten

Most kittens are fully house-trained by their 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.

A pedigree kitten should have been well socialized by his breeder. However, if he 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.

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 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.