Genetics, in utero stresses, and poor maternal nutrition may affect physical and psychological development.37,42,43 Personality in kittens is strongly influenced by the tom and is thus genetic in nature rather than observed or learned.44 Important aspects of kitten behavior are learned from the queen, including acceptance of foods, toileting habits, substrate preferences, and a fear response to other species (including people and dogs).35,43,45
The sensitive socialization period for new experiences, people, and other animals begins as early as 2–3 weeks and may be closing by 9–10 weeks.32,42 This period is fluid and can vary for each individual cat—what is truly important is the quality of the experience. Social interactions with littermates provide special social bonds. Ideally, kittens should have pleasant interactions with people for 30–60 minutes per day.37,46 Kittens should be gently, gradually, and positively acclimated to any stimuli (e.g., people including children, noises, animals, car transport, veterinary practice) or procedures (e.g., nail trims, grooming, medicating) they may encounter during their lifetime. This can be accomplished by pairing conditioning stimuli with food or other enticing rewards. Avoid stressful or unpleasant first encounters. Owners should introduce kittens to humans and other pets by allowing the kitten to approach and engage on their own terms.
Gentle, respectful handling will prepare the kitten for a lifetime of positive handling. The kitten that is startled or subjected to rough handling may develop fears that last a lifetime. Kittens have a high play drive and learn predatory behavior by watching, swatting, chasing, pouncing, and catching. Intercat social play peaks at around 12 weeks of age,47 and then object play becomes more prevalent. Throughout the first year, kittens will often engage in predatorytype play. Clients should be taught not to use their hands or feet as toys during play, as cats will learn that this is an appropriate form of play and it can lead to scratching or biting injuries.
Cats are innately fastidious. As a result, they may be naturally attracted to sand-type substrates for elimination. Elimination tends to occur away from primary resting locations, and feces and urine are often covered, presumably to avoid risk of discovery by predators. Some practitioners believe that kittens are most accepting of the litter they observe their queen using, which may influence future preferences. With this in mind, it may be beneficial to offer a young kitten a variety of toileting substrates, with a view to them evolving into an adult with greater acceptance for an array of litter types.33 (See the “Elimination” section.)
Incorporating Kitten Socialization into the Examination Visit
The initial veterinary examination visit is an ideal opportunity to create a positive experience and set the stage for a lifetime of regular veterinary care. Practice team members should educate and show the cat owner how to read the cat’s body language, and identify signs of stress and fear, such as cowering, flattened ears, and hissing. They may even use tactics to encourage comfort such as slow-blink eyes.48
Kittens should be allowed to explore and interact with practice team members. Provide toys that take advantage of the kitten’s strong prey drive, as well as palatable foods or treats. Kittens are more open to accepting foods and should be offered tidbits to divert their attention from more unpleasant aspects of the examination such as vaccination.
Currently, in North America, opportunities to attend kitten classes or structured socialization sessions are limited. Until these opportunities increase, veterinary professionals should consider each kitten’s visit as an opportunity to create a positive experience and familiarize the kitten with the practice team and environment. Team members should be trained to use appropriate interactions including positive reinforcement, gentle handling, and use of food or rewards to desensitize and countercondition kittens to veterinary or handling procedures8; aversive handling or punishment should always be avoided.
Training Kittens in Preparation to Be Adult Cats
Kittens, and even older cats, can be taught many behaviors with well-timed positive reinforcement. For example, teaching a cat to come when called for a tasty treat can be used in carrier training, which will help build a positive association with the carrier and, in turn, assist with getting to the veterinary practice. It may be helpful for a cat owner to reward a cat for getting on a small mat so the cat will be better prepared for the veterinary examination. Interested cat owners can also teach their cats agility, fetching, or tricks. Moreover, cats can be taught to voluntarily accept grooming, nail trimming, instillation of ear treatments, application of topical antiparasitics, and administration of medications both orally and subcutaneously. Ultimately, almost every cat is going to require medication at some time in its life, so it is prudent to acclimate cats to these types of procedures.
Kittens may be taught to accept pilling by administration of a tasty morsel of food instead of a pill. By giving treats that are soft enough that they may be wrapped around a pill, the young cat is exposed to those foods before the need for a pill. Commercially available pill pockets may be given empty or with a hard piece of kibble hidden inside to acclimate the cat to the change in texture. Kittens may even be taught to accept a novel use of the old-style “pet piller” by letting the kitten lick moist food off the end of the piller. While the kitten is eating, the piller plunger (not the piller itself) is advanced to deliver another morsel of food into the kitten’s mouth.49,50
It is imperative to educate cat owners that scratching is a normal feline behavior. Positive reinforcement for nail trimming warrants special consideration because many cats will scratch on undesirable surfaces including carpeting, window and door frames, curtains, and couches. Keeping the nails shorter can minimize the damage to household items as well as to people. Moreover, meeting the cat’s environmental needs may be beneficial in reducing scratching of unwanted surfaces.38 Any intercat-related issues should be identified and addressed as soon as possible, as these can lead to increased territorial scratching behaviors.51
Scratching posts and a variety of other scratching surfaces should be provided for cats as soon as they enter the home. Cats may have individual scratching habits, but consider provision of posts near resting areas and high-traffic pathways. Available scratching substrates include rope, cardboard, carpet, and wood.One study revealed that ropewas most frequently used when offered, although carpet was offered more commonly.52 Cats scratched the preferred substrate more often when the post was a simple upright type or a cat tree with two or more levels and at least 3 ft high. Narrower posts (base width less than or equal to 3 ft) were used more often than wider posts (base width greater than or equal to 5 ft). Cats between the ages of 10 and 14 years preferred carpet substrate. All other ages preferred rope.52 The preference of older cats for carpet may be due to age-related musculoskeletal changes or because these cats may not have had the opportunity to use the range of substrates as kittens. “Claw Counseling: Helping Clients Live Alongside Cats with Claws”51 is one of several resources in the AAFP Claw Friendly Educational Toolkit.53
Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA Inc., CareCredit, Dechra Veterinary Products, IDEXX Laboratories, Inc., Merck Animal Health, and Zoetis Petcare supported the development of the 2021 AAHA/AAFP Feline Life Stage Guidelines and resources through an educational grant to AAHA.