Kitten 101: Creating Positive Behaviors
Written by Small Door's medical experts
Instilling good behaviors in your new kitten takes practice and patience. It’s important to be consistent and make sure they learn appropriate, positive behaviors to grow into a well-mannered adult cat. There are four key processes you can use to help your kitten learn these good practices: socialization, habituation, stimulation, and training.
In This Article
In a nutshell, cat socialization involves getting your feline accustomed to the companionship of humans and other pets. This includes everything from human sights, smells, sounds and touch, to learning to share spaces.
Socialization is also about communication. Kittens learn about themselves and how to interact with others through socialization and it teaches important social cues that they’ll use throughout their adult lives.
Socialization helps create a loving, trusting, affectionate, and well behaved cat. Socializing cats and kittens isn’t just beneficial, it’s crucial to making sure they’re not easily scared or aggressive later in life. Socialization is especially important if you have a multi-pet household or children so they don’t end up with bites and scratches.
When kittens socialize with cats and other species, they correct each other when playing too rough and encourage each other when playing too timidly. They learn how to treat humans and how to play with them, too.
There is a critical socialization period for kittens (until they reach 14 weeks of age), and during this time, they’re primed to learn all the social skills they need to succeed. Most pet parents bring kittens home around 7 to 8 weeks of ages, so this is the perfect time to start socializing your new furry friend.
Remember that kittens are not fully vaccinated until 16 weeks old. This means they are susceptible to infectious diseases and illnesses during this important socialization period. Be sure to only socialize your kitten with other vaccinated pets, including cat-friendly dogs, and as many different people as possible.
When socializing your cat with other cats, it’s always a good idea to go slow as the introduction can be stressful for both cats.
1. Create a safe solo space for your cat
When you bring your new cat home, make sure they have a safe space or room alone to themselves that they can go to if they need a break from socializing.
2. Swap cat scents
Next, swap cat scents by placing a toy or bedding that belongs to your other cat near your new cat (and vice versa) and let them proceed to smell and explore the other cat's scent.
3. Introduce cats with barriers
Once your cats have become familiar with each other’s scent, it’s time to socialize them using a barrier. You can use a screen door or a baby gate to help separate them while still allowing them to see and smell each other. Give them treats to encourage and enforce positive behavior like sniffing noses, playing through the barrier or rubbing against it. Once you see this kind of socialization you can remove the barriers.
If your cats are growling or hissing, give them more time to socialize in a controlled setting with barriers.
4. Introduce cats without barriers
Remove the barriers and let your cats socialize together. Provide them with toys to continue encouraging interaction, and use treats and other high-value rewards like pets and scratches. If your cats fight, interrupt them by clapping your hands, making a loud noise, or using a squirt bottle with water to break them up.
You’ll start to notice different noises and vocalizations – cats meow and use different sounds to express their needs and wants, and you’ll learn these as your cats socialize.
When socializing a cat with humans, it’s important to start slowly and always use a calm and soft voice to help them feel comfortable. Get down on your cat’s level to make yourself more approachable. If your new cat isn’t accustomed to being touched, start by spending time in the same room and talking quietly to them. Reward them with treats when they approach you.
When they’ve gotten comfortable enough in your presence, pet their head and again reward them with treats when they act positively. Once they’ve acclimated to light petting, you can move on to picking them up (from under the chest), petting their belly, stroking their feet with your finger tips, and more in increments.
If at any point your cat seems agitated, just take a break and remember to be flexible and patient. While it may take time in the beginning, even a few 15 minute sessions per day can be enough to start to develop a bond with your new cat.
Habituation is the process of your cat or kitten getting used to their surroundings and all the sights, sounds, smells, noises, and tastes that come with it. For cats or kittens, new stimuli can be overwhelming and lead to fear and anxious behavior — exposing them accustomed to these stimuli, new people, and experiences will help them become more comfortable and less fearful.
Expose your kitten to plenty of new people and experiences so they begin learning, and ultimately become less fearful as an adult.
Just as when you socialize your cat, use positive rewards like toys and treats when you introduce your kitten to new things. A key part of the habituation process is handling your cat often. It will go a long way if they are comfortable being touched and handled by different people – from reducing stress at vet visits to giving medications easily and being accepting of strangers.
Start the process as soon as your kitten or new cat comes home. Rub their belly, play with their ears, touch their mouth and teeth, and hold them in different positions. Involve friends and family members to build your little one’s trust, and always remember to give a treat or other high-value reward with new experiences.
Here’s our Socialization and Habituation Checklist. Try to run your new cat or kitten through all of these and more!
Being touched or pet by strangers
Experiencing human visitors come and go
Meeting young children (while supervised)
Meeting healthy and vaccinated cats
Meeting healthy and vaccinated cat-friendly dogs (discuss with your veterinarian first!)
Hearing the washing machine, dryer, and vacuum
Hearing the phone ring
Hearing laughter and clapping
Traveling in a car
Seeing and hearing trucks, bikes, buses, or scooters
To create positive behaviors, your kitten needs to be exercised, both physically and mentally. Getting sufficient physical stimulation and mental enrichment helps to enforce your cat’s good habits, and they will be less prone to behavioral issues. A lack of exercise and stimulation can often lead to your cat becoming disruptive, aggressive, and hyperactive.
Cats that are indoor-only need plenty of enrichment to fulfill their needs. Try using puzzle feeders and toys that mimic hunting instincts.
Other enrichment ideas include:
A laser pointer
Crumpled paper balls
Cardboard boxes and tunnels
High surfaces to perch on and climb
A window to look out
Cats love using cardboard boxes and other hiding places to play in and feel safe. These are one of the easiest toys to find – just repurpose a shipping box!
Avoid materials like plastic, string, thread, and yarn as these can cause life-threatening intestinal damage if eaten. Keep plastic bags out of reach and monitor the toys that your cat plays with and chews on. If your cat starts destroying a soft toy with strings or other hazardous materials, throw it out immediately.
The best way to stimulate your cat is using appropriate toys and enrichment methods with them. Throw some toys around for them or encourage them to use a scratching post. This allows your cat to socialize with you while getting physical and mental activity.
Cats are intelligent and active creatures whose brains thrive on challenges, so creating mental stimulation is important for your cat’s overall wellbeing and happiness. If a cat doesn’t have challenges provided to them, they’ll begin to make their own entertainment in their surrounding environment like attacking furniture, late night play sessions, or other undesirable behaviors.
In a natural environment, cats spend their time hunting prey. This means they are repeatedly running, jumping, and pouncing. Having this kind of physical stimulation keeps your cat physically strong and healthy, as well as exercising their mind. While in a domestic environment they may not be hunting for food, you can still provide them with active experiences to keep them physically stimulated, muscular and healthy.
There are plenty of ways to keep your cat mentally stimulated, even indoors. Below are a few ideas to try with your cat:
Interactive track toys: watch your cat play with the balls in a track toy and try to remove them. These are a great solo activity, something you can play with your cat or even for your cat to play with other cats while giving them mental and physical stimulation.
Cat perches: let your cat explore vertically by giving them a cat perch or cat tree to climb up and down. These can also double as scratching posts.
Wand toys: these are a fun interactive game for your cat, as wand toys recreate hunting behavior. You can watch your cat get into action trying to catch its “prey” at the end of the string.
Puzzle feeders: not just for dogs! Puzzle feeders are a great way to challenge your cat as they strive to get their food. One of our favorites is the Indoor Hunting Feeder by Doc and Phoebe.
Automated toys: these are great for when your cat is home alone and needs stimulation. Automated toys turn on by themselves or are motion triggered so if your cat walks by they’ll turn on.
Training your kitten early on helps create a socialized and loving cat who knows how to properly interact with other pets and people. Without kitten training, behavioral problems like aggression may arise in cats whose habituation, socialization, and stimulation is often neglected.
A lot can go into training a kitten, but there are a handful of tips that will make your training sessions successful.
Train prior to feeding: When kittens are hungry they are much more receptive to training, so use this motivation to grab their attention and focus on training. This will also increase the power of using treats for positive reinforcement.
Keep training brief: Kittens don’t have a long attention span so be sure to keep your training sessions under 15 minutes so that neither you or your kitten become frustrated.
Remove distractions: Kittens are very curious creatures so eliminating distractions will help your training sessions run smoothly. Try turning off the TV, music, or other common household background noises to hold their attention.
Be consistent: Consistency with signals, cues, and words during your training sessions will help your kitten learn faster.
Teach one skill at a time: Avoid overloading your kitten by working on one new thing at a time. Otherwise, you run the risk of having unproductive and frustrating training sessions.
Use positive reinforcement and treats
Positive reinforcement is key to ingraining these essential processes in your cat. Training with rewards and positivity will encourage all the good behaviors and ultimately discourage the negative ones.
Use rewards in all aspects of your kitten’s life. Give plenty of treats and praise when they play nicely, when they meet new people or places, and when they use toys and enrichment. Remember, a reward does not have to be food based. Show your cat that pets, scratches, and verbal praise are other fun trade-offs to expect when they exhibit those positive behaviors.
Avoid punishing your cat while training them
While training a cat can be frustrating, you should never physically punish your cat or kitten during any training session. Not only is this unethical but it’s also been proven that pets have a hard time linking punishment with their bad behavior, so it won’t have the desired outcome. It will likely result in a negative relationship between you two and run the risk of your cat lashing out or becoming withdrawn long term.
Cats are intelligent creatures and learn in very different ways from other pets, so knowing how to create positive behaviors in your cat is key to making sure you help nurture an affectionate feline with a strong bond. Follow the four cornerstones of training — socialization, habituation, stimulation, and training — to help your cat or kitten learn good practices.
As always, you can reach out to our team at Small Door with any questions or concerns, or book a behavioral consultation with one of our doctors.