The Comedy Kittens came to us from The Cat House to foster when they were about seven weeks old. At this age, it’s important that kittens are socialized. It was even more important for these particular kittens, as they had been under the protection of their feral mother before coming to us. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, studies have shown that the effect of socialization of cats up to twelve weeks can have lifelong benefits. Socialized kittens are more likely to be outgoing and better able to deal with the regular stresses of life. The socialization of kittens is most commonly viewed as familiarizing them to a variety of people and other animals, but it also includes familiarizing them to being handled and to different experiences and environments.
Being aware of the importance of socialization, shortly after our three foster kittens settled into our home Andy and I invited friends to visit them. Kim and her daughters were our first visitors. As we weren’t sure how easily the kittens would adapt to strangers, we initially had Kim’s daughters visit the kittens one at a time. As each daughter visited, I gave them wand toys. An orange octopus wand toy quickly became a favorite for the kittens. Each played in their own way. Carol liked to run and jump at the octopus swaying over her head and Rodney followed suit by grabbing at the tendrils. In contrast, Charlie initially batted fearfully at this alien object. After a time, whenever he could capture the octopus body, he’d roll on the floor with it cupped in his paws.
One Saturday, we had three visitors at separate times. Lahiru, who as a student assistant a few years earlier had become friends with my husband, had come back to town for a visit. They caught each other up on news while playing with the kittens. The other two visitors are involved with animal rescue. Mary Jo is a volunteer with Dolly’s Legacy Animal Rescue and came to talk to me about litter box issues. Elaine is a volunteer with Joining Forces Saving Lives and came to be interviewed by me for an article about a rescue’s barn cat program. Both women stayed to see our cats do agility and to visit the kittens. Elaine and I talked about the possibility that the kittens had different dads. Our only female kitten, Carol, has tiger-like stripes that seem to form a cross on her back. The two boys lack the striped hair. Rodney has a freckle on his nose and Charlie has fluffy hair.
Three more visitors came the following week to see the kittens. Mary is the president of Lincoln Animal Ambassadors. She dropped by with newsletters for me, and we hung out in the kitten room as we caught each other up on news. Amy works with my husband and is a friend of ours. She managed to round up all three kittens for posed photos with her. This was an extraordinary feat due to the high energy of the kittens. Sharon is a teacher friend of mine. As we caught each other up on news, I realized that the kittens were ready to have their nails clipped. Anytime they tried to climb on one of us, they would inadvertently scratch our skin or clothes. As a temporary measure, we cried “OW!” or “NO!” and then redirected them to a toy.
Of course, socialization isn’t just about introducing kittens to strangers; it’s also simply getting them used to human contact. Andy and I had plenty of opportunities to do this by doing regular caretaker chores: providing food, changing water, and cleaning litter boxes. In addition, whenever we entered their room, we took time to say hello to and pet them. When the kittens got diagnosed with a bacterial infection (not an unusual occurrence at this age due to the immune systems of kittens not yet being fully developed), we had plenty of opportunities to hold them when giving them their medications. We also just hang out with the kittens, sometimes playing with them and other times resting with them. Towards the end of their time with us, Andy would bring our toy poodle Barnaby into the room with him, which gave the kittens at least a little exposure to dogs. By the time they left us, they were pretty comfortable with him, although Barnaby was no more comfortable with them
In the month or so we had the three kittens, we saw them each become more comfortable with people. The greatest change occurred with Rodney and Charlie, both of whom had been quite shy when we met them. After we bought them a cat tower, Charlie became the first to greet me when I opened the door to their room. I like to think that these greetings were his way of thanking us, or perhaps Charlie simply wanted to find out if we’d brought him any more gifts. Rodney was originally the smallest, but had almost caught up to others in weight after being cured of his infection. He then began following his sister’s lead in being curious about new objects. As for Carol, she remained the most extroverted and most mischievous throughout her stay with us, but also started to snuggle with my husband and me. It was priceless to hear her constant purr.
In doing research for this article, I discovered that socialization includes familiarizing kittens to different experiences and environments. To a certain extent, this happened naturally through our care for the kittens. For example, some litter always tends to end up on the floor and clean up involves the use of a broom or a vacuum, which acclimates kittens to these objects. The Comedy Kittens initially ran under the bed whenever I brought in the vacuum, but eventually they overcame their fear and would continue to romp as I cleaned.
Familiarizing kittens to different experiences and environments can also require deliberate action. For example, whenever we’ve fostered we’ve given them the occasional opportunity to explore our living room or even the entire first floor. Earlier this month, we lured our own cats into the basement, shut the door, and then brought the Comedy Kittens into the living room, using a large box to block the doorway to the hall. Carol of course took the adventure in stride and began checking out everything without hesitation. For a time, Rodney shadowed her but eventually started to sniff the furniture and other objects on his own. Charlie initially batted at strange objects such as cords and lamps with his paws. By the end of their evening of adventure, all three were racing in and out of a cardboard castle, up and down a cat tree, and getting into mischief behind our TV.
I always like to spend a few nights sleeping in the kitten room, which contains a twin bed. Until almost the end of their stay with us, the kittens were too wild at night to attempt this. Finally, the weekend before they were slated to return to The Cat House, I enjoyed a lovely night with them. Two curled up next to me, and one of them even lay on my chest, and we greeted the morning together.
While simply the act of their living in a home will acclimate kittens to many different experiences and environments, American Veterinarian noted two experiences that Andy and I didn’t expose the kittens to. First, kittens should become familiar with carriers and travel. Their level of uncomfortableness with either became evident when we took them to the vet to be spayed and neutered. Carol, followed by the others, cried loudly throughout the whole drive. The ideal scenario is that one makes kittens so comfortable with carriers and travel that they readily embrace it. Second, kittens (like puppies and children) would benefit from a kindergarten class. Currently, none exists in the area, but I hope to offer one in the future to Lincoln cat parents. If the latter interests you, please indicate so in the comments!
Andy and I have enjoyed helping to socialize homeless kittens. If you have the time, we encourage you to help save homeless cats through fostering too. The amount of time that kittens spend interacting with people is important but doesn’t have to be exorbitant. ICatCare recommends handling for around 30-60 minutes per day in multiple short sessions. As for exposure to experiences and environments, ICatCare noted that these are often encountered in a normal home.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Carol and Rodney are available at The Cat House for adoption. Charlie has already been adopted.