Pet InfoRx®
Kitten & Adult Cat Socialization

Socialization is important for cats of all ages. We’re not necessarily talking about socializing your cat with cats from different households. That can be too intense for many cats. But think of all the other things your cat will be exposed to in their life that could be scary and uncomfortable. That’s what you want to think about when it comes to socialization. How can you make their lives, and by extension your life, easier by setting them up to be confident and comfortable in lots of different situations? Read on to learn how.


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Topic Highlights

  • The key socialization period for kittens is 2 to 12 weeks of age. Experiences during this window greatly influence their temperament and how they’re going to react to different situations as they get older.

  • Even if your cat came to you older than 12 weeks, you can still do socialization work with them. It may just take a little more time and patience because they’ve probably already established some trepidation (mild to severe fear) about new things and experiences. It’s natural for any living creature to be less fearless as they get older.

  • When you’re dealing with negative associations that have already been established — like a cat who has already been forced into a carrier for a scary trip to the vet now being afraid of the carrier — you can still work on socializing them to the carrier and reverse those negative associations. That type of work is often referred to as systematic desensitization. 

Socialization is a Life-long Journey

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Most kittens aren’t adoptable until well into or after the key socialization period, leaving adoptive families without the option to work on socialization during this important time. But that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck.

Cats of any age can still benefit from socialization work. It just needs to be handled with a bit more care and patience because they may have already established negative feelings about the experiences. It’s important to respect those feelings as you work to reverse them.

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What Is Cat Socialization?

Socialization is simply a method of exposing your cat or kitten to new things and experiences in a positive way. This helps establish confidence and brave behaviors as they learn new doesn’t mean scary.

Cats who are well socialized are likely to be less skittish and reactive through life. Cooperative care like nail trimming and giving medication can also be much easier on them and you when they’re socialized to that kind of handling in a positive way. It just makes everything better, whether your cat is relaxing at home, exploring a new environment, going to the veterinarian, being groomed at home, and so much more.

You can also desensitize your cat to things they weren’t properly socialized to, even if they’ve already had negative experiences with those things.

These are just some of the things to consider for your socialization list:

  • Petting (while respecting your cat’s boundaries and preferences)
  • Gently restraining
  • Handling the body, as your cat will experience at the veterinary clinic
  • Loud or startling sounds
  • Strangers
  • Children
  • New places (safely and under supervision)
  • Car rides
  • Carriers
  • Cooperative care handling, as your cat will experience at home or the veterinary clinic, like nail trimming, brushing, injections, and getting medication
  • New things all the time

Simply bringing new sights, smells, sounds, and sensations into your cat’s daily routine in a positive way will lay the foundation for confident, brave behavior. That ongoing exposure will make them less reactive when new things happen. A confident cat is less skittish, reactive, fearful, even less aggressive, and more friendly.

How to Socialize Your Kitten or Adult Cat

Whether you’re working with a kitten or an older cat, one thing stands above all else when doing socialization work. Make it positive! Good things should be happening for your cat as they’re exposed to any new thing or experience.

You never want to push your cat past their comfort zone. Don’t give them a reason to put their guard up. Always control the intensity of the exposure. And if your cat seems a little anxious at any point, just turn that intensity down.

Here are a few examples of socializing to new experiences and desensitizing to experiences that already have some negative associations.

These sessions are short — just a few minutes at a time, as long as your cat is willing and interested. The number of sessions it will take depends on many factors. Sometimes it's just a few. Other times it may take several sessions.

Socializing a kitten or adult cat to gentle restraining

Let’s start with a kitten or cat being socialized to gentle restraining, which is important in situations where you need to be able to secure your cat for care or safety.

  1. Start by petting your cat or inviting them up on your lap. Make it a great experience. Lots of petting, verbal praise, and treats.

  2. Now gently hold them in place for a few seconds and give a few treats while it’s happening. If they get squirmy, let go. Respect that boundary.

  3. Wait a moment. Then gently restrain again for a slightly shorter period of time. Pile on the treats and other positive reinforcement.

  4. Try to let them go before they get anxious. Gradually increase the length of the hold, using treats or other things they love to encourage them to comfortably stay in the hold for longer. 

Within just a few sessions of a few minutes each, you can teach your cat that gentle restraining isn’t just safe and acceptable; it’s great! Moving forward, be sure to give positive reinforcement here and there when your cat responds well to being gently restrained.

Socializing a kitten or adult cat to being medicated

Here’s an example where you might be starting fresh with a kitten or cat who has never been exposed to something like taking medication or you may need to reverse a negative association an older cat already has with being medicated.

The best way to look at socialization or desensitization to something like giving medication is to break it up into baby steps.

Find that starting point where your cat is completely comfortable, like seeing the medication in front of them and having your hand touch their face. Baby step them all the way through to being comfortable as you give the medication, rewarding each step in the right direction and slowing down/backing up a few steps if they show even small signs of discomfort.

Think not just about what you’ll be putting in your cat’s mouth but how you’ll need to handle them to accomplish it. And remember, reward each step forward with a treat or something your cat loves.

For example:

  1. Start by getting them used to your hands gently touching around the mouth and gradually transition to using your fingers around each side of their mouth to open it like you would when popping in the meds.

  2. You may also want to lift the chin upward, which can automatically open the mouth slightly. Get them used to this feeling without actually giving any medication.

  3. Consider what position you’ll want their body in and slowly get them used to getting into that position and being held there for a moment, similar to the description above for gentle restraining. You’re doing all of this before you even consider introducing tools or medication. You’re just focused on handling and rewarding to create those positive associations with the process and teaching your cat what to expect when the time comes.

  4. Then you do exactly the same thing with any tools you might use. Pill poppers (sometimes called pill guns) can be used without a pill or with an empty gelatin capsule for training purposes. Syringes or droppers can be filled with water or a tasty broth.

    Read more tips on giving your cat pills.

Before you know it, you’ve slowly gotten your cat comfortable with a variety of handling and medicating techniques and made lots of positive associations throughout. When the time comes for actual medicating, it will be much easier on you both.

Socializing a kitten or adult cat to strangers

Here’s an example for cats who haven’t spent much time around strangers or visitors to your home. Again, never push past your cat’s comfort zone or force anything. Even if they hide when people come over, that’s OK. You can start working with them while they’re hiding.

It can be as simple as just making good things happen for your cat when people visit — whether that’s giving them a food puzzle or tossing some treats around the room your cat is in, or popping in a few times to toss a toy or have a quick play session. You’re showing your cat that good things happen when this scary thing happens. So, maybe the scary thing isn’t actually all that scary.

When your cat shows brave behavior — from sticking their head out of the door of their hiding room to coming in and greeting the strangers or anything in between — reward them. Pile on the positive reinforcement (whatever makes them happy).

You can do more focused training using techniques similar to the examples above, where you slowly expose your cat to the visitors, pairing each step with treats or other rewards and watching for those signals that you’re moving too quickly.

Signs you're moving too quickly with your socialization training

Watch your cat's body language closely as you're working on socialization and desensitization. You never want to push past their comfort zone. And body language is what will tell you they're uncomfortable. Watch for things like:
  • Leaving the area
  • Drawing their head (or whatever body part you're engaging with) away from you
  • Aggressively swishing their tail
  • Fidgeting
  • Ears turning to the side or back, even a little
These signs, and anything other than nice relaxed behavior, mean you're moving too quickly or your cat just isn't in the mood. Take a break and, next time, turn the intensity down.


What Can Make Things Worse

There’s a common mistake we often make with socialization work or changing a cat’s existing negative associations with something. We push too hard, too fast.

Either we start at a point where they’re already a bit uncomfortable with the thing or we turn up the intensity too quickly and they become uncomfortable. So, start the process where your cat is comfortable and progress slowly.

Another common mistake is thinking a scared cat will get comfortable with something if you just expose them to it for long enough. That’s not the case. True, after a long exposure, they may let their guard down a little because they’re seeing they’re not being injured or attacked by the scary thing. But it’s unlikely that they’ll ever feel truly comfortable with it. They certainly won’t have positive feelings about it, which is what you want – a confident, happy cat.


When to Get Help

If your cat is really fearful of something specific and you’re unable to find a starting point where they’re calm enough to start working on the issue, a certified feline training and behavior specialist or veterinary behaviorist can help.

If your cat lives in a heightened state of fear or anxiety, less about a specific item or experience, and more just generally anxious, a behavior professional can help you develop a behavior modification plan to reduce stress and build confidence. And sometimes, anti-anxiety medication or natural calming supplements from your veterinarian can help your cat let their guard down a bit. This is usually best for more severe cases. But it's not a solution on its own. It's still important to pair medication with behavior work to address the root cause of your cat's fear or anxiety.


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