Kittens are most open to new experiences between 4 and 17 weeks of age, after which they become more cautious and wary. To raise a well-socialized cat, it is critically important to expose them to novel stimuli — different types of people, sounds, objects, textures, foods, handling, etc., during this time. This guide will help you move at an appropriate pace through your kitten’s development. Try to provide most (80%) of these experiences each week or so, with handling occurring daily. Remember to be creative! This list is not exhaustive, so take time to consider what your kitten’s life will be like in your home throughout their lives and add to this list accordingly. Do you have other pets? Will your cat go outdoors? What sounds and stimuli are present in and around your home? For an example of some other ideas, check out our socialization guide for puppies or see our class offerings for our kitten and cat training opportunities.
Before a Kitten Is 4 Weeks Old
- Touch all four paws
- Touch ears
- Touch tail
- Pick up
- Pick up and hold
- Stroke the back
- Introduce low-level noises (see below)
At 4 Weeks Old
- All of the above
- Start giving treats (see below)
- Pick up all four paws
- Touch and apply gentle pressure to and around toes
- Stroke or lightly fold back upper ears (as if to examine)
- Gently touch inside of ears
- Lift tail gently
- Pick up and hold with towel
- Hold while feeding
- Wipe body with towel
- Cover with towel
- Introduce to crate
- Ride in car in crate
- Introduce toys
At 5-6 Weeks Old
- All of the above
- Introduce to nail clippers
- Vet visits
- Lay on side
- Syringe feed meat flavored (chicken or turkey) baby food (as if to give medication)
- Play with toys
At 8 Weeks Old (Usual Adoption Age)
- All of the above
- Clip nails
- Introduce harness
- Put on table
- Put on scale
- Gently pinch and lift skin into a ‘tent’ along back near nape of neck (as if to give a vaccine)
- Introduce more noises and people (see below)
Begin playing sounds at very low volume and increase the volume only if kitten appears relaxed and comfortable. YouTube is a great resource for sounds, and this channel is a great place to start!
- Baby sounds
- Dog sounds
- Street sounds
- People of different genders
- People of all ages, especially children of varying ages
- Different ethnicities
- People of different heights and body types
- People with different mobility
- Bearded men
- People wearing hats, glasses, masks and skirts
- People moving suddenly
Things to Remember
Make it Positive
When introducing your kitten to all of these new experiences, reward with treats and praise so they create a positive association with the new activity. Observe your kitten’s behavior to see if they are enjoying the experience; are they eating treats? Do they seem relaxed and comfortable? If not, take a break from the activity.
Take It Slow
Handling should continue (with treats!) as long as the kitten stays relaxed. If they start to struggle or avoid it, decrease the type of handling and work your way back up. These exercises should continue in the home when adopted at 8 weeks as long as the kitten stays relaxed.
Trainer tip: Working with someone else, offer your kitten a spoonful of wet food to start licking. As soon as they begin eating, begin handling. The moment they pause or move away, stop handling. The kitten is telling you they need a break. When they resume eating, resume handling. This pairs the sensation of the handling with the high-value reward of food! If working on your own, smear some wet food on a small dish or a licky mat (any easy-to-clean food-safe textured surface) instead. Make sure the food is at an angle where you can still easily and comfortably do the handling!
Kittens should be allowed to approach strangers on their own and get treats for coming up to visit. Encourage slower rather than sudden movements, “soft” as opposed to direct eye contact, and calm or lightly playful voices as the kitten is choosing to approach or interact. Another great way to build a positive rapport with strangers is playing with wand toys!
Trainer tip: Meeting people can be hard if your kitten vanishes before they even see them! Use YouTube or recordings on your phone to gradually expose your kitten to sounds like doorbells, knocking, groups of people interacting (in a manner similar to what they’d experience in your home). Start at a very low volume and treat your kitten every time they appear to perceive the sounds and remain calm. Only raise the volume if they’re staying relaxed — the moment they appear nervous or stressed decrease the volume, so they calm again; continue with rewards several times and then end the session. Soon the sounds of people arriving and sharing the space will be a very positively conditioned response!
Some cats prefer “air games” and some prefer “land games” and some like both! To determine this, use a wand toy (a handle with string attaching to a toy) to make the toy fly and see if the kitten chases it. Then try making it crawl on the ground and hide behind things, slowly “sneaking” out from hiding as if it were a mouse or lizard. Move slowly and quickly, up and down to see what your cat prefers to chase. Try different types of toys — some wand toys have feathers, others have fuzzy cloth at the end and still others have raffia or other grass. There’s a wide variety out there, so try a few different things. Some cats love playing fetch, others watch the toy go away and then turn to look at you as if to say, “Silly human, why did you let it get away?” Keep trying until you figure out what your cats like. While playing and introducing toys, be mindful not to put it too close to their faces, especially if they are shy, as we don’t want the toy to scare them. When you are done playing, make sure to give your cat a treat or a meal to mimic what happens in the “wild”: hunt, kill, eat, groom, sleep! This should also help you get some peace and quiet from them at night.
Trainer tip: Rotating through different types of toys and play in a way that suits your cat’s energy levels can be a good way to avoid or minimize overstimulation (such as play biting and play aggression). Whether your cat’s play mode goes from high energy to low, or low to high, utilize the more “up close/near you” toys when they’re playing at lower energy and games like fetch or wand toys when they’re playing at higher energy levels. Remember, it’s important NOT to use our hands as toys — we don’t want to teach our kittens that biting is acceptable at any age!
Use Treats or Food
As early as 4 weeks we increase socialization protocols with treats. For example, as they lean in to sniff a harness or leash, give a treat. Remember to reward the action, and give the treat right away, so they understand investigating was a good behavior! This will get them more comfortable with exploring new objects and environments. Have a variety of treats at hand. Try wet food in a syringe or on a popsicle stick or spoon, try meat-based baby food, tuna, boiled chicken, store-bought treats, soft or crunchy treats, etc. Try putting them on the ground. Try putting them in a dish. Try giving treats by hand. See what your cat gets most excited about and what they eat. Take notes and have more than one type of treat on hand during training sessions — this helps them not get too bored or wander off because they never know what they’ll get next!
Trainer tip: Exposing your kitten to different textures of food can help avoid picky behavior later. Also a great way to train kittens (or cats!) is to reserve part of their diet and use it for rewarding good behavior you observe throughout the day — investigating new things, scratching appropriately, jumping on appropriate surfaces, allowing petting, greeting people, etc.! This is more enriching and engaging for the cat and helps them learn which behaviors are appropriate and expected in the home.
Questions About Public Classes
San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.
Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, it will also strengthen the bond you share.
Our website includes a current schedule of training classes or call 619-299-7012, ext. 2398.
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