Vet Q&A: How can I socialise my kitten during lockdown?

by PDSA Vets | 29 April #VetQ&As

With lockdown extended, newly rehomed kittens might need a bit of extra help to learn that the world isn’t such a scary place. Our vets have put together their top tips.

Socialisation is all about introducing kittens to the world in a positive way so they don’t get scared of everyday noises, sounds, experiences and people. A well-socialised kitten who has had lots of good experiences will grow into a confident, happy cat.

We call this period of a cat’s life the ‘socialisation period’, where they’re given chance to explore and understand everything around them. Well socialised kittens are less fearful as adults and more likely to form positive relationships with other cats and people. Making sure kittens have positive experiences is really important as bad experiences can cause life-long fears.

It might be a bit more difficult to socialise your new kitten in the current situation. We’ve put together our top tips to help you both through this time.

Remember to do plenty of research before getting a new kitten. Getting a new pet is a really big commitment, so it's important to consider ongoing costs and whether they are definitely the right pet for you. It might seem like a good idea at the moment as we are all spending more time at home, but you need to think about your normal situation and whether you'll be able to give your new pet the attention they need when your usual routine restarts. You can take our quiz for some guidance on the pet that would suit your household best.

 

When is the ‘socialisation period’?

The first two to seven weeks of your kitten’s life is the ‘socialisation period’. During this time, they should experience a range of experiences in a positive manner – handling, sounds, smells, environments, other cats, variety of people etc.

If your cat has recently had kittens, it is especially important that kittens are not taken away from their mother too early as studies have shown that when the mother is present, kittens are more confident and display fewer signs of anxiety.

Socialising your new kitten will be difficult during the current pandemic as you will not get the opportunity to introduce other kittens, animals, or people; but there are many other ways to help get your kitten used to their new world.

 

How do I introduce my kitten to another cat?

Usually, cats are solitary and prefer to live as an only cat. If you already have a cat in the home, you’ll need to introduce them slowly and carefully to make sure the meeting goes as smoothly as possible. We don’t want either cat to feel threatened or scared.

Before you kitten comes home

  • Scent swapping. If possible, before your kitten is brought home, try ‘scent swapping’. Cats are extremely sensitive to smells, and a big change in the house such as a new pet can be very stressful, so if they have chance to get used to the scent of your new pet it will make the process a bit easier.
    • To scent swap, use a blanket or small cloth for each cat and rub gently the side of the cat’s face and their body. Then leave the blanket or cloth with the other cat. Ideally, this should be done as early as possible to get each cat used to each other’s scent.
  • Set the house up. Each cat needs access to important resources such as food and water bowls, litter trays, hiding places, high resting places. These should be set up separately so each cat will have their own space. Divide each area with a baby gate (small enough so the kitten can’t get through) or dog gate where the cats can still see and smell each other without physical contact. Find out more about the perfect home for cats in our free guide.

When your kitten is home

  • More scent swapping. After a few days, you can swap bedding to further get the cats used to each other’s smell. Every so often, give small treats to each cat to build positive associations with the other cat.
  • First face-to-face introductions. When the cats are attempting to sniff and investigate one another, let them have physical contact for a short period. Make sure you are supervising when this happens. If any growling or hissing occurs, put up the barrier again and try again when they are calm. You can build up the time they are in contact when they seem happy and reward with a small treat when they are close to each other.
  • Living together with no barrier. When you are able to remove the barrier (this will be when there is no hissing or growling and both cats are comfortable together), ensure that each cat has their own food bowl, water bowl, hiding place, high perch, litter tray, and bed, plus one extra of each item. This will help to ensure there is no conflict over items.

 

How can I tell if my cats are getting along?

You can tell if your cats are getting along by watching their behaviour when they are together. Cats that are part of the same social group and getting along well will groom each other and rub up against each other. They’ll perform greeting behaviour with their tail up, and often sleep and spend time together.

Cats that don’t get along may avoid each other or keep to certain areas of the house, hiss or growl, and may spend time hiding. They may still be close to one another, but facing the other direction, depending on access to resources such as food and water.

Not getting along or having enough resources can lead to stress in one or both cats. If your cat is stressed, they spend less time eating, grooming, playing, and spend more time hiding and resting. If either of your cats do this, make sure they both have plenty of space to escape each other and do not force them to interact. Read more about preventing stress in cats.

 

How do I introduce my kitten to people during lockdown?

You can still introduce your kitten to everyone in your household, as this won’t break any lockdown or social distancing restrictions. However, if someone is self isolating due to Coronavirus, then they'll have to be kept out of introductions until they're given the all clear. Each person should practice handling the kitten and picking them up. If the kitten tries to escape or hisses, stop any handling as they’re not enjoying it. If they try to bite and seem to want to play, remove yourself from the situation and wait until have calmed down – we don’t want the kitten to associate human hands with play!

Handling tip: Only handle your kitten for a very short amount of time and give them a small treat or some kitten food on a spoon so they associate handling with something good. When they are more comfortable with handling, you can increase the time you handle them for. Ideally, they will come to you to be touched and handled. If you have a brush, use the same process to get them used to brushing.

Meeting other people

It’s difficult to get your kitten to meet other people given the current situation, so you may have to get creative in the home! Try wearing different clothes, hats, glasses, masks and costumes to get your kitten used to a variety of things people might wear.

Once your kitten is comfortable and enjoys spending time in their carrier (download our advice on this), you can take them for a walk outside in it to see and hear other people. Remember to keep to social distancing and stay at least two metres from other people not in your household. This will let your kitten experience other outdoor noises, smells and sights. We don't want cats getting used to the sound of traffic – we want to keep them wary of this, so don't give treats when you're exposing them to any sounds of traffic as we don't want positive association.

When you do take your kitten out in their carrier, hold it stable with your hands supporting the body of the carrier – the swinging action of holding just the handle may make them uncomfortable. Start by staying close to your home and gradually build up the distance if your kitten seems calm. Check on them regularly to make sure they don’t become stressed – if they start meowing or moving around, bring them back indoors.

 

How can I get my kitten used to my home?

The good news is, there’s still a lot you can do to help your kitten get used to the home. A lot of things (sounds, smells, experiences) will still be new to them and could be scary so you can start introducing them to things slowly in a positive way:

  • Sounds. You can play your kitten a socialisation CD or use a socialisation playlist online to start getting them used to everyday noises. Start at a low level and give them some treats. If they don’t react to the sounds, you can slowly increase the volume. If they seem startled, go back to a volume where they are calm. It’s vital not to create positive associations with traffic sounds, though, as we want them to be wary of cars and other vehicles.
  • Household items. Items like bikes and umbrellas that move are great to get your kitten used to. Hairdryers, washing machines, dishwashers, that make noise, may be potentially scary, so let your kitten investigate these at their own pace.
  • Smells. Cats are very sensitive to smells, so try not to use strong scented or perfumed cleaning products or air fresheners as these can be off-putting to them. If you can, you can introduce them to a variety of different smells such as other people and other animals by collecting them on a cloth (if you can do this safely at this time).
  • Textures. Provide your kitten with a range of safe textures to walk and interact on – carpets, wooden floors, pebbles, grass, concrete, sandpaper, paper, rubber, rugs, plastic, metal, different types of cat litter etc. If they are nervous, don’t force them – we want them to make the choice to try new things themselves.
  • Stairs. If you have stairs, you can supervise your kitten if they want to attempt to climb. Providing them with smaller heights to climb using boxes first will help build their confidence.
  • Playtime and toys. Give your kitten a variety of safe toys and allow them to play (remember to supervise). Cats like toys that move and allow them to mimic hunting behaviour. Fishing-rod type toys or balls are great for this. You can check out the range of toys we have available from our online pet store.

The goal of socialisation is to help build a calm and confident cat through slow and controlled fun experiences. If your cat is not enjoying something, remove them from the situation. Let them go at their own pace and let them have fun.

 

What can I do to socialise my kitten after lockdown?

When lockdown is over, you can begin to introduce your kitten to other new people and environments gradually. Try to limit this to one person at a time until they get used to visitors. Get your visitor to ignore the kitten and only interact when your kitten seeks attention from them. If your visitor approaches them straight away and makes a fuss over them, this could be very scary for them.

Take a similar approach introducing them to other animals and environments, and remember to make sure they always have somewhere to escape to and hide. Always have kitten food on hand as a treat to create a positive association with something new, so the new experience doesn’t become scary.

You can read more about kitten socialisation in our online guide.

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