How To Socialize Your New Kitten
And what socialization really means 😺
Bringing a kitten home is always exciting.
And being the loving pet parent you are, you want to make sure she feels totally comfortable at home — even around some of the scariest things in your house.
That’s where socializing your kitten comes in.
The Dodo spoke with Dr. Andrea Y. Tu, medical director at Behavior Vets in New York City, to get all the tips and tricks about socializing your tiny new friend, so she’s not side-eyeing the vacuum for the rest of her life.
What does it mean to socialize a kitten?
“What socializing means is … you’re really utilizing a time period in which they naturally would explore their environment, and kind of learn what is safe and what is not safe,” Dr. Tu told The Dodo. “Think of it more as forming good associations [rather] than socialization.”
To people, socialization means interacting with other people. But socializing your kitten doesn’t actually mean transforming her into a social butterfly.
“Socialization is not just a social interaction,” Dr. Tu explained. “Socialization is really just to form associations, and it’s [about] forming associations to anything in your environment; it doesn’t have to be a living thing.”
Basically, socializing your kitten means you’re getting her comfortable with her home and the things in her environment, like her carrier, the vacuum or grooming supplies.
When to socialize a kitten
Keep in mind it’s important to start your kitten early, because you only have a certain window for her socialization period.
“Kittens actually … start going through their socialization periods ... earlier than dogs do, by maybe a few weeks,” Dr. Tu said. “This actually coincides with normal brain development, and when animals would be leaving their litter.”
In kittens, that socialization period is really early — from 2 weeks old to 7 weeks old.
If you miss this window, all hope isn’t lost.
You should still go through the same socialization process, but it does make things a bit harder sometimes.
“It’s never too old to teach an animal something new. You can’t say that they’ve timed out their ability to learn something,” Dr. Tu explained. “But there is a time-out period when it comes to socialization. The reason for that is that brain development really kind of ends, so you lose ... flexibility.”
Same goes if you adopt a kitten older than 7 weeks.
“Most people are going to be getting cats from shelters and most people are not going to be getting really, really young kittens like that, and that’s fine,” Dr. Tu said. “You’re still going to be exposing them to different things and pairing it with a good situation so they can form positive associations.”
How to socialize a kitten
In order to socialize your kitten, you need to know how to make sure her associations (with objects or with other living things) are good ones.
“To socialize a kitten, the best way really is to look for the things that you would expect your cat to be comfortable with in his or her environment in the future, and try to make those things associated with good things,” Dr. Tu said.
Usually, the best way to do this is with lots and lots of treats.
“One of the first steps [of socialization] would be to try and figure out what your cat enjoys as far as food goes,” Dr. Tu said.
That way, you’ll know which treats she’ll respond most positively to, and therefore which treats will help her form the best associations.
When you’re socializing your kitten — especially if she’s skittish — you’re going to want to implement desensitization and counterconditioning tactics.
“[Using] small little increments to change that association from something that is bad to something good … and using treats along with it, that’s what’s known as counterconditioning and desensitization,” Dr. Tu explained.
How to use desensitization when socializing a kitten
When desensitizing your kitten to something, like the vacuum for example, you want to get her used to the vacuum in its least intimidating form first — aka, unplugged and off.
Once she’s used to the vacuum like that, gradually increase the intensity as she gets more and more comfortable with it.
So after she’s used to it unplugged and off, get her used to it plugged in and off. Next you would try turning it on, and maybe you could even work her up to being comfortable with the vacuum being pushed around the room.
“Exposing the small increments that [the kitten] gets used to before you up the ante, that’s desensitizing,” Dr. Tu said. “You’re desensitizing the cat to the smaller version of the vacuum before you make it a little more intense [and] a little more intense. And you slowly make your way up to the full intensity of what you would like the cat to be OK with.”
How to use counterconditioning when socializing a kitten
This is where the goodies come in!
“Counterconditioning is when you’re using treats and you’re pairing what used to be scary to something that’s good so they change their conditioned emotional response,” Dr. Tu explained.
So with the vacuum, for example, if your kitten steps (even just the teeniest bit) toward the vacuum to investigate when it’s unplugged and off, shower her with treats!
Thanks to the treats, she’ll start associating the vacuum with something that makes her happy, and ultimately view it as a good thing.
Keep giving her a bunch of treats as she gets more and more comfortable investigating the vacuum when it’s unplugged and off, until she’s at the point where she’s totally fine walking around it as if it’s just another piece of furniture in your house.
(That’s where the desensitization will come in — once your kitten reaches that level of comfort, you’ll increase the intensity of the vacuum by just a teeny bit.)
Counterconditioning doesn’t always have to be paired with desensitization.
“For instance, if you want [your] cat to be friendly with guests, then you can invite friends over, but don’t force [your] friends to hold on to the cat,” Dr. Tu said. “What you want to do is whenever friends [or guests] come over, they give the kitten a ton of treats so the cat then forms the association that when guests come over, good things happen.”
That way, your cat will view your guests as good people to be around, instead of scary intruders.
Things to watch out for during kitten socialization
When socializing your kitten — unless you have the bravest fluffball in the world — it’s not going to go perfectly all the time.
“Cats are both predators and prey. So they do have that flight response,” Dr. Tu said. “If [your] cat wants to flee, let [her] flee.”
If your cat does get spooked when you’re trying to socialize her, she might start showing signs like:
- Looking away
- Air and nose licking
- Tail twitching
- Ears turned out, flattened or pinned back
- Dilated pupils
If you notice your kitten doing any of these things, just back off. The last thing you want to do is try to force her to socialize when she’s afraid or stressed.
“The most important part of socializing a cat … is that you want to make sure you’re not pushing them to the point that they’re scared, because that association that you form could either be good or bad,” Dr. Tu said. “And you really want to focus on the good.”
And this doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll be scared forever, just that you need to backpedal and reassess.
“You’re going to have to determine what made it scared, and the next time you want to expose the cat to it, you want to expose the cat to a milder version,” Dr. Tu explained.
If your kitten is stressed out more often than not, you could always try getting a pheromone diffuser for your home.
These tips will work for most kittens if you go slowly enough.
But if you suspect that your cat is more scared than she should be (which could be a sign of an underlying anxiety issue), you should contact your vet or trainer for an assessment.
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