If you’ve ever had a shy or fearful cat, a cat that peed outside the box or scratched inappropriately, or a cat that feared the vet office, then kitten kindergarten is for you. Kitten kindergarten is for kittens 7 to 16 weeks of age, when they’re most open to new experiences and most easily trained. It’s also an important part of their socialization, which animal behaviorist Dr. Kersti Seksel described as learning to tolerate members of one’s own species as well as members of other species.
This upcoming January, I’ll offer kitten kindergarten classes as part of my business Allison Helps Cats.. To learn more about kitten kindergarten, I interviewed four instructors and listened to two lectures.
Sarah Welsh, a Feline Shelter behavior program coordinator at the San Francisco SPCA, started a kitten kindergarten after receiving a call from a client who wanted to know if the SF SPCA offered such a class. “At the time, my colleague and I had never heard about Kitten Kindergarten,” said Welsh, “and so we did some research. Knowing that there are a lot of training options for puppy parents, and that kittens can be trained, we knew that we needed to offer something for kitten parents.”
Tabitha Kucera, owner of Chirrups and Chatter Cat Behavior Consulting and Training, similarly noted that many people are familiar with puppy socialization but don’t often hear about kitten socialization. She started offering kitten kindergartens to help cat owners and caregivers set their kittens up for success. “Some common reasons cats are relinquished or abandoned are litter box issues, scratching in areas owners don’t prefer, not getting along with other pets, and human directed aggression,” explained Kucera. “In kitten socialization classes, kitten parents are taught how to prevent common behavior issues and raise happy and healthy cats. Kitten kindergarten helps to save lives.”
Erin Welsh, who works in the Training and Behavior Department at the Maryland SPCA, shared that she has typically fostered “shy/fearful kittens” and has a fondness for “the hissy, fractious babies.” Welsh said, “It’s extremely rewarding seeing kittens flourish in a foster home after receiving positive training and early, systematic socialization. I wanted to share my experience with the general public, so that they can set their newly adopted kittens up for success and prevent the possibility of future behavioral issues as they mature into adult cats.”
In the lectures that I listened to, one by Paula Garber and one of Sophia Yin, both professionals started out by saying that cats are the most popular pet in the world. They then referred to statistics to back up this claim. There are 86 million cats owned in the United States, compared to 78 million dogs; and cats outnumber dogs three to one in European households.
Both professionals then noted that cats are the pets in the most trouble, and again referred to statistics. 34 million cats enter shelters annually; with most of them being strays not community (or feral) cats. Of those, 71% of cats are euthanized in contrast to 56% of dogs and only 2% are claimed in contrast to 30% of dogs. Almost twice as many cats as dogs NEVER see a veterinarian—60% of owners say their cats hate the vet. Finally, behavior problems are the top reason that cats are relinquished AND the most common reason cats are euthanized.
Kitten kindergarten can help turn those statistics around. Dr. Kersti Seksel, an animal behaviorist in Australia, started the first program about twenty years ago when clients in her puppy classes wanted equal attention for their kittens. Her curriculum allows time for kittens to play and interact, and teaches their owners about cat communication. Her curriculum also covers training cats through positive reinforcement and hands-on activities. For example, participants learn how to groom, trim nails, and provide oral care for the kittens. They also learned how to prepare their kittens for vet visits, how to use litter boxes and scratching posts, and how to walk on a leash. By graduation day, through their broadened life experiences, kittens will generally have lessened fears and increased confidence. In addition, their owners will have acquired a more positive image of kittens because they’ll better understand them and be more equipped to show them how to live in our human world.
Erin Welsh shared an example of the positive impact that kitten kindergarten can have on kittens. Her first kitten kindergarten client brought with her a blind kitten. Welsh wrote in our email interview, “Despite his disability he was very sweet, social and curious, and was able to play like a completely normal kitten with the other foster kittens that tagged along as ‘helpers.’ He also learned how to recall to a specific auditory cue in place of the typical hand targeting behavior I normally start with. It was a lot of fun seeing his confidence grow and how easily he adapted to the new environmental changes.”
Kucera wrote about the progress of two kittens named Mittens and Meghan. “These two were unsure and fearful at first. By the second class, they were the most outgoing kittens greeting and playing with everyone and enjoying nail trims. They were also adopted into homes shortly after kindergarten!”
Sara Welsh shared an example of the positive impact that kitten kindergarten can have on participants. In our email interview she wrote, “One client saw how much fun her kitten was having with the other kittens during playtime. After her kitten graduated from kitten kindergarten, my client adopted a second kitten a few days later. Two weeks later she brought the new kitten to class. She saw how important it was to take her new kitten to kitten kindergarten, and how it’s just as important for both the human and kitten.”
Jodi Summers, a cat behavior consultant, said that her favorite moments were when “people finally believed they could train their kittens, and watching the excitement on their faces when their kitten learn something new.”
This is just a fraction of what I learned about kitten kindergarten from the people I interviewed learned about kitten kindergarten. I also learned: the best time to offer a class, how many weeks to run a class, the optimum class duration, average cost of sessions, how old kittens should be to attend a kitten kindergarten, the typical class size, and supplies needed.
The reason for asking these questions is that in January, I will offer Lincoln’s only kitten kindergarten, with the help of Dr. Jody Jones. There will be three one-hour sessions held over three Sunday afternoons. The cost will be $25 per session, with some supplies provided. Kittens from 7 to 16 weeks old will be accepted. Kittens must be current on shots and have received a clean bill of health from your vet. Location and time to be announced.
I know that there will be challenges to offering a kitten kindergarten. The four kitten kindergarten instructors I interviewed have struggled with attendance because cat owners are just starting to understand the importance of kitten socialization and training. Other challenges they faced included finding alternative ways to socialize those kittens that simply don’t want to participate and tracking down the most tempting treats for each individual taste bud. Finally, Summers cautioned that each class will be different, and so instructors will need to adapt curriculum on the fly.
Each instructor has a lesson that they’ve learned from the classes that underlies the reasons why the challenges are worth it. Summers said that kitten Kindergarten taught her that “each kitten has a unique personality and will learn in their own way and time,” while Erin Welsh said that kitten kindergarten has allowed her to experience firsthand “the bond that can result when owners work cooperatively with their kittens.” Finally, Kucera made the point that, “If no one is offering the classes, it will never become the norm. The goal is for everyone to know the importance and need for kitten socialization classes.”
Stay tuned here and at Allison Helps Cats for exact dates and registration details. In the meantime, spread the word: kitten kindergarten is coming to Lincoln!