Early socialisation and habituation in kittens during isolation
There is a sensitive phase in the kittens' early life when they are most predisposed to learning from different types of physical and social experiences. The sensitive phase for socialization of kittens to humans starts from approximately 2 or 3 weeks to 7 or 8 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 get used to meeting unfamiliar persons. In these difficult times, Government advice is to stay home and avoid any contact with people not belonging to our household. Even in this difficult situation, there are a lot of things that we can do to prepare our kittens for their future lives and to minimize the negative effects of the current limitation to human exposure.
How can we provide adequate social and environmental stimulation for kittens during the coronavirus outbreak?
It's important to follow government advice regarding social interactions at all times and so we cannot invite guests to make kittens' used to different kinds of people but we provide here a few tips to help breeders and owners to minimise the disruption to their kittens' socialisation process and prevent future behaviour problems.
How to provide enough exposure to social and environmental stimulation
The more your kitten experiences a variety of new situations in their early life, the more comfortable they will be with new experiences when they're older. This also includes contact with humans. 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!
This can be achieved by providing 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 them to stimuli that are likely to make them more confident in their future physical and social environment. This will help them to be more successful when meeting new people and exploring the outdoor world later. Increase your kitten's positive sensory experiences, from paws to whiskers:
Your kitten will benefit from getting used to walking and jumping on a range of surfaces, not just on your carpet, ceramic, wooden floor, or your bed or sofa. The tactile stimulation on their paws, when they are eventually allowed to explore outdoors, will also be so varied! You can provide something that is uneven on their paws and that makes crackling sounds like some different kinds of crumpled paper: small toys and fishing toys are useful to give them 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 are allowed to explore the outside world. Pebbles from your garden or a piece of artificial grass, for example; please remember to clean these objects to avoid any contamination from other cats from the outside. You could also use plastic, ceramic and metal bowls from your kitchen which may 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 is a risk of your kitten swallowing them. In general, every time you introduce a new toy or object, the kitten needs to be supervised.
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 space. If you are worried that they do not yet have the ability to safely climb on high places, minimize the risk by providing objects or furniture that they can use as ladders or provide more suitable alternatives in a different part of your house.
The more they experience this when young, the more accomplished climbers they will become. Be mindful of their safety but let them take a few safe risks so that their confidence and experience grows. Also remember that if you are worried your kitten may get scared of you! Always use a calm voice and gentle gestures. Kittens also love tunnels and cardboard boxes: they are easy to get and safe!
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 are likely to encounter in future, always in a very gradual way and when they are happily playing. Ensure they are always relaxed. If they become fearful, change the sound or make it quieter.
Pair all the most common sounds that predict the arrival of a guest (doorbell or knocking the door for example) with positive stimuli and activities. You can provide a special new toy or a licking mat with a food that the kitten loves while you open and close the door, ring the doorbell etc.
Sounds that come from the street when your window is opened are real auditory stimuli but please be sure to avoid putting your kitten in real danger or frustrating them.
We often don't realise how much a cat uses their nose. Clothes and toys impregnated 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 by tv images, please note that moving objects that cannot be grabbed can cause frustration, and overexposure is not recommended. As such, laser lights or similar 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, and kittens can also be habituated to brushes and combs (very important if they have long hair) in the same way. The interactions should be kept short and paired with positive experiences. Ask all the persons that live with you to do the same. You can get more information from this International Cat Care video about handling kittens.
It's very important that kittens are not stimulated to play with human hands or feet and any attempt should be discouraged by stopping the interaction and giving them an appropriate toy. We advise that interactive toys should be used to play in an interactive way with kittens and immediately interrupt the play session if they grab your hand or clothing instead of the toy.
Teach your kitten as early as possible that you are not an 'object' that he can hunt or grab. Please avoid any kind of verbal punishment: your kitten will only know 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.
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 will not be scared when you will need to travel or take him 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 will 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 getting overwhelmed.
Your kitten (or any cat) should also not be picked up if they do not want to be. It will be a very positive sign if your kitten plays with or in the presence of your guests. Make sure your kitten has lots of places to hide and ask your guests to leave the kitten alone if he chooses to do so!
Thanks to the Cat Group for their contribution to this advice.