Cat socialization plays a huge role in how cats interact with each other and with us. The health of the mother, duration of handling, and genetics are just a few things that play a role. This article breaks down 10 fascinating facts involving cat socialization so you can better understand your fur babies!
When it comes to feline behavior, I’ve learned so much from anthrozoologist, animal welfare scientist, and author John W.S. Bradshaw. Many (not all) takeaways in this article are from his books The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat and Cat Sense. I highly recommend reading them if you want to learn more.
If a mother is sick or struggling while pregnant, her developing kittens’ brains and endocrine systems can be affected.
One things we’ve learned from studying mammals is that a stressed pregnant mother with have an increase in stress hormones. These can cross the placenta and impact her offspring’s brain and endocrine system. Although it hasn’t been studied specifically in cats, it’s likely to be the same.
We don’t have to look far to know the health of the mother impacts her growing kittens. Pregnant cats who get panleukopenia late in gestation, can pass the virus onto their kittens. It attacks the cerebellum while it’s developing, and these kittens may end up have CH (cerebral hypoplasia) or wobbly kitten syndrome. A pregnant cat experiencing trauma or malnutrition or exposed to poison are other causes of CH.
A kitten handled at a young age, 2-3 weeks, then not handled for a few weeks, will quickly warm up when handled again by the same person.
I used to see this first hand at my grandparents’ outdoor cat colony. There would be times I’d handle the littles, and then the mother would move them. I wouldn’t see them for a few weeks, and when I saw them again, they were scared. Something incredible would happen though. As soon as i started petting them again, it was like a switch flipped and they remembered me. In my experience, these kittens weren’t completely socialized with everyone, but they did accept me. This demonstrates how important early handling is for cat socialization, and that any handling during that time helps.
The crucial cat socialization period starts at week 3 and ends at the end of the 7th week.
Born deaf and blind, most kittens have open ears and eyes 10-14 days after birth. It appears that once they are acclimated to their newly acquired senses, the part of their brain responsible for socialization is ready to be molded.
Kittens need exposure to women, men, and children before 8 weeks to not be fearful of any of them.
Although it’s not completely clear if they view us as one group or not, a wide variety of exposure helps with cat socialization. It’s been shown kittens only exposed to women (for example) may be fearful of men (this is true in other mammals as well). Scientists and behaviorists feel it’s best to expose kittens to as many types of people and age groups as possible to help be confident with everyone.
If a kitten isn’t handled by 8 weeks, it’s incredibly difficult to socialize them; if they hit 10 weeks, they’ll most likely remain feral forever.
At 8 weeks, the part of the brain involved in socialization starts to change. Kittens at this age are extremely difficult to socialize. Once they reach 10 weeks, if they have never been handled, socializing them is almost impossible. There are very few exceptions, but one is if the cat experiences extreme trauma or illness and is nursed back to health by a human. In some cases, these cats accept the human. It’s believed the traumatic experience rewires the brain somehow, but scientists still can’t really explain this.
Forty minutes to an hour of handling a day is the best amount.
This is usually not an issue, because who doesn’t want to spend time with kittens? But one study showed handling kittens for 40 minutes per day vs. 15 minutes per day made a difference in how social the kittens were. Studies show there is a point when extra handling doesn’t mean a cat will be extra friendly. Handling for more than hour a day doesn’t make a kitten “more socialized.” Of course, you can handle a kitten as much as you want! Just remember it won’t necessarily have more of an impact on them.
Hand-raised or singleton kittens play rougher than ones with littermates.
If a rescue or shelter has a singleton kitten, they often try to put it with a litter. This will help develop a well-balanced cat. Starting around week 5, kittens really learn a lot from their littermates about how to play. They learn how hard to bite or scratch because if it’s too hard, their siblings will correct them. Singletons or hand-raised kittens miss out on this crucial part of socialization if they’re never placed with other kittens.
Kittens that experience extreme stress can actually become better survivalists.
If a kitten’s mother is having a difficult time finding food or surviving or must abandon her litter, the kittens will experience a great deal of stress. High levels of stress hormones can impact the brain, causing these kittens to overreact later in life when it may not seem warranted to us. Why is this? It’s evolution. A cat expecting stability would not know how to survive if food was hard to find (for example). Whereas a cat that has to outperform littermates and fend off competing cats is more likely to survive in a difficult world.
Stress early in life can impact brain development before it matures.
Outside of what happens when they are kittens, cat brains are not mature immediately at one year of age. There are different estimates, but many place brain maturity at 2-3 years. Stress, neglect, abuse, and trauma can all impact the brain. We know in humans that repeated stress literally changes how our brains work. Parts of the brain responsible for fight or flight can get overdeveloped, and parts of the brain responsible for regulating our stress become less effective. Why? Because we are all built for survival.
A cat like my Lucy has a brain that just doesn’t work like a normal cat brain. She quickly goes into fight or flight even when there isn’t a threat, but she perceives there to be one. To manage her stress and anxiety, she has her own room, and I try to keep her life as routine as possible. It’s also important that she doesn’t spend time with other cats. Their movements are too unpredictable. Given Lucy had gone through horrible neglect when she was surrendered to the city shelter, this is all not a surprise, but it is a perfect example of what can happen when cats undergo repeated stress. They simply only know how to manage to survive and just can’t turn off the part of their brain that thinks everything is a threat.
Genetics from a kitten’s mother AND father can play a big role in their behavior and personality.
Genetics matter. All you have to do is look at breeding to see it and therapy dogs are an excellent example. A calmer dog is more likely to have offspring that have calmer dispositions too.
In most situations, we don’t know who the father of a kitten is. And if we think we know, we may be wrong because one litter can have multiple fathers. Since fathers are rarely involved in the lives of their kittens, kittens may reflect their father’s genetic traits.
When it comes to their mother, they may also reflect her genetic traits. But additionally, the kittens may imitate her behavior patterns since she is usually involved in raising them. Mothers can also control our access to her kittens. So if she’s more fearful and guarded, it may limit the amount of handling a kitten gets, which will impact their relationship with humans long term.
And I leave you with this photo of three tiny nuggets.
Sources: John W.S. Bradshaw, The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat and Cat Sense.