How to socialise new kittens during the coronavirus pandemic
There's a sensitive phase in a kitten's early life when they're most predisposed to learning from different types of physical and social experiences. The sensitive phase for the socialisation of kittens to humans starts from approximately two or three weeks to seven or eight weeks of age, although a positive exposure to humans is important and beneficial for much longer!
Young kittens should be exposed to different kinds of human beings and given the opportunity to get used to meeting unfamiliar people. During the coronavirus pandemic, government advice is to stay home and to avoid any contact with people outside of our household. Even in this difficult situation, there are still ways we can prepare our kittens for their future lives and minimise the negative effects of limited exposure to other humans.
How can we provide social and environmental stimulation for kittens during the pandemic?
It's important to follow government advice regarding social interactions at all times and so we cannot invite guests to help get kittens' used to different kinds of people. However, we have tips to help breeders and owners to minimise the disruption to their kittens' socialisation process and in turn, prevent future behaviour problems...
The more your kitten experiences a variety of new situations in their early life, the more comfortable they'll be with new experiences when they're older. This includes contact with humans as well as other sensory experiences. It's important that new experiences happen in a place where your kitten already feels safe and happy. This will increase the likelihood of your kitten responding to the new experience in a positive frame of mind!
Focus on increasing your kitten's positive sensory experiences, from paws to whiskers
Positive experiences can be provided by using many different kinds of stimuli to both fulfil your kitten's need for play and exploration and to let them know that the world is full of different experiences. We can expose kitten to stimuli that are likely to make them more confident in their future physical and social environment. This will help them later on when it comes to meeting new people and exploring the outdoor world when they're older.
Your kitten will benefit from getting used to walking and jumping on a range of surfaces - not just on your carpet, floor, bed or sofa. Remember, the tactile stimulation on their paws, when they're eventually allowed to explore outdoors, will also be varied! You can provide something that's uneven on their paws and that makes crackling sounds, like different kinds of crumpled paper. Small toys and fishing toys are also useful to provide kittens with positive experiences of a new surface.
Anything you can get that may provide your kitten's paws with different tactile stimulation will help to make them more confident when they're allowed to explore the outside world. For example, pebbles from your garden or a piece of artificial grass. Please remember to clean these objects to avoid any contamination from other cats. You could also use plastic, ceramic and metal bowls from your kitchen which make different sounds as your kitten touches them.
Toys are marvellous for tactile stimulation and kittens love to grab small toys with their paws and mouth. Make sure these items are not so small that there's a risk of your kitten swallowing them. In general, every time you introduce a new toy or object, the kitten needs to be supervised to ensure safe playtimes.
Physical stimulation (movement)
Cats use the three dimensions of the available space, so any elevated space, like shelves, cat trees, or windowsills will contribute to the development of your kitten's ability to explore and use the spaces around them. If you're worried that they don't yet have the ability to safely climb on high places, minimise the risk by providing objects or furniture that they can use as ladders. Alternatively, provide more suitable versions elsewhere in a different part of your house.
The more kittens experience different space while they're young, the more accomplished climbers they will become. Be mindful of their safety but let them take a few safe risks too so that their confidence and experience grows. Also, remember that if you're worried, your kitten may become scared of you! Always use a calm voice and gentle gestures. Kittens also love tunnels and cardboard boxes - which are easy to get and safe too!
Cats have broad hearing ranges and it has been shown that they can discriminate between their owner's voice and the voices of strangers. We can use recordings of different types of human voices while our kitten is playing or happily exploring. Recorded sounds prepared for puppy socialisation, downloaded recordings of human voices (children, women and men of different ages) from the internet, or any other recording of voices you may have access to are great for this.
In the same way, kittens can be exposed to different kinds of recorded sounds that they're likely to encounter in the future, always in a very gradual way and when they're happily playing. Ensure they are always relaxed. If they become fearful, try changing the sound or making it quieter.
Pair the most common sounds that predict the arrival of a guest (doorbell or knocking on the door, for example) with positive stimuli and activities. You can provide a special new toy or a licking mat with food that the kitten loves while you open and close the door, ring the doorbell and so forth.
Sounds that come from the street when your window is opened are real auditory stimuli that can be utilised but please be sure to avoid putting your kitten in any real danger or frustrating them.
We often don't realise how much a cat uses their nose. Clothes and toys filled with catnip can stimulate exploratory and play activity. Olives and Valerian are also very exciting (in a positive way) for most cats. Also, allow them to sniff things if they are interested (and it is safe), this can help them to gain information and learn.
Get your kitten used to different human 'shapes.' You can play with them wearing a big hat, a pair of sunglasses or any other kind of cloth or clothing that changes your body shape.
The effect of videos and TV images in terms of environmental enrichment for cats is not yet well understood, but if you notice that your kitten is attracted to TV images, please note that moving objects that cannot be grabbed can cause frustration, and overexposure isn't recommended. As such, laser lights or similar 'games' are not recommended to be used as toys for cats or any other animal.
Handling and a little bit of training won't hurt
Gentle massages, while you provide nice treats, is likely to make the experience of being touched by a human pleasant. Kittens can also be habituated to brushes and combs (this is very important if they have long hair) in the same way. The interactions should also be kept short and paired with positive experiences. Ask all f the people that live with you to do the same.
Find out more: Handling kittens video.
It's very important that kittens aren't stimulated to play with human hands or feet and any attempt should be discouraged by stopping the interaction straight away and giving your playful kitten an appropriate toy. We advise that toys should be used for play in an interactive way but immediately interrupt the play session if your kitten grabs your hand or clothing instead of the toy.
Teach your kitten as early as possible that you're not an 'object' that he can hunt or grab. However, please avoid any kind of verbal punishment. Your kitten only knows you, and any negative feeling when interacting with the only humans they know may then influence their future ability to positively bond and interact with others. Instead, dissuade a kitten from grabbing your hands by keeping still and distracting them with an appropriate cat toy.
Keeping track of your kitten's progress
You may find the kitten socialisation chart from Cats Protection helpful for keeping track of all the different things to introduce your kitten to.
Think about the future...
Introduce your kitten to a travel carrier, so that he'll not be scared when you'll need to travel or take him or her to the vet. Leave the carrier out, containing comfortable bedding, special treats and toys, where the kitten can explore it.
When isolation is over
When the rules of social distancing and isolation are removed, you'll probably have friends and relatives coming over. Remember to introduce these new people to your kitten slowly and carefully! Please instruct everyone to avoid direct approaches and direct eye contact. If your kitten approaches the new person, you need to advise everyone to keep the petting time very short to prevent them from getting overwhelmed.
Your kitten (or any cat) should also not be picked up if they don't want to be. It will be a very positive sign if your kitten plays with or is in the presence of your guests. Make sure your kitten always has lots of places to hide and ask your guests to please leave the kitten alone if he or she wants some alone time!
Thanks to the Cat Group for their contribution to this advice.