Kitten Socialization

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By Dr Sophia Yin

How did this foster kitten learn to be so tolerant? She doesn’t mind being held in this awkward manner.

She went through kitty socialization class.

Every year, thousands of stray kittens are fostered and adopted out. The foster caretakers do their best to address the kittens’ medical health, but did you know that perhaps the most important action a caretaker can take that will help kittens find a permanent home is to actually socialize them. That is, give the kittens positive experiences around many different people, animals, unfamiliar kittens, environments, and for many handling procedures too. The resulting kitten is more likely to be outgoing and social like the average dog, and be better able to deal with the regular stresses of life—such as your changes in schedule, addition of new members to the household or visitors, or the sight of cats moving in to the neighborhood.

Better coping skills means they’re much less likely to do what cats do when they get stressed—spray or potty outside the litter box. They are also better able to integrate into a family and interact in a more loving, social way.


The Best Part of Socializing Kittens is That it’s Easy and Fun.  Way easier than socializing puppies. Here’s an example.


These kittens are at my house for the first time. The playroom is filled with fun toys, so even the shy ones eventually come out and play.

Scratching post
Feather toys are a favorite
This structure was a pain to put together, but once together, watching the kittens play on it makes it well worth the work.
This kitten isn’t sure what to make of this tripod. But because he’s in his sensitive period for socialization, he’s pretty curious and goes to investigate.







This kitten is rewarded for sitting with a treat.


Now this kitten is learning to walk over and then sit in order to earn a treat.


This kitten is learning to target—touch his nose to the ball. Targeting can be used to teach many tricks, such as spin, sit pretty, go into your litter box, come play with me





We also give the kitten good experiences when they are restrained. This kitten is eating canned cat food in a syringe.




Here we’re pairing rough handling, such as tugging the tail, with food. It’s important to make sure that the kitten is happily eating and that you tug below the level that will cause the kitten to lose interest in the food.


Once you’ve handled the kitten for a few seconds, remove both the food and the touching hand so that it’s clear to the kitten that the two go together.


This kitten is learning that lying on his side and being held by the scruff is fun. This is how he may be restrained at some veterinary hospitals.




Don’t forget to have a litter box present during kitty socialization sessions!



The kids—3 and 6 years of age—practice holding the kitten and giving it food.





They also reward the kittens for sitting politely to get treats. They are using canned cat food on a spoon.




And of course they play with the kittens!



The kittens don’t mind being held even when there’s not food involved. In fact they are very relaxed and seek attention from the kids.

The kids also practice targeting with the kittens. When the kitten touches the target with her nose, the child removes the target and rewards with food.


This is the kitten they have chosen to adopt.


Note that this 3 year old was too shy to play with the kittens at first, especially in the presence of 5 unfamiliar adults (Me, Melissa the foster raiser and three assistants). But like the kittens, when she was allowed to just watch and see how much fun was going on, she relaxed and suddenly decided to participate on her own. Both she and the kittens had a positive experience and will continue to do well in this type of environment.


Learn how to socialize your kittens based on the science of animal behavior with
Kitty Kindergarten cover

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6 responses to “Kitten Socialization

  1. I attended your Kitty Kindergarten webinar in August and thought it was fantastic! I wanted to share it with the clinic owners I work for, as well as friends that are obtaining kittens right now. I remember the moderators saying that the webinar would be recorded so we could access it later, but can’t find it to save my life. Any idea where we can find and access this material?

  2. Thank you for an excellent blog on this topic. Hoping more shelters and rescues will take this to heart.

    BTW – that nylon cube with the various perches is a PAIN to put together! I am sure there must be a cat tree in the kitten room, that I just don’t see.

    My 7 year old cat came from a friend. The first few months of kittenhood were spent in a large crate to keep her safe from a dog and two cats that didn’t like her. She was about 8 months when she came to live with me. Needless to say, she wasn’t accustomed to being picked up and held, and she is skittish. Interesting, she is most comfortable with my dog. We’ve come a long way … but I realize what a difference socialization would have made.

  3. my kitten was a little anti social when i brougth her home, but after i introduced her to the other kittens she started to play with them 🙂

  4. Hello,
    My beautiful kitty is now 18 months old – I got her from a reputable shelter when she was ll months old. She has only recently allowed me to pet her and has never allowed me to pick her up. She is well behaved with no hissing and scratching or missing the litter box, but it is not in her best interest not to let me pick her up. I can’t even take her to the vet for shots. She foliows me every where and sleeps on or under my bed at night. She is an indoor only cat and lets me brush her often with a large, soft bristle clothes brush – loves it. She eats well and often. What can I do to help her let me pet and pick her up? Help!

  5. Mary,
    I am not a cat expert but I have had many cats. My experience is that some cats simply don’t enjoy to be picked up. I am not sure if we can expect all cats to become the same, compliant creatures even with conscious socialization from a young age.
    As a pet owner, I think we have to respect these personal boundaries just as we want others to accept our individual differences.
    I may be idealistic, but I think as pet parents, we should not force any behavior at our charges. We should not at all cost try to mold our pets to serve our wishes and desires.
    Of course, there may be some simple, tried-and-true trick to change the behavior of such animals, and then, by all means, do it. However, your love and acceptance for your cat should not depend on the outcome of these interventions.
    Keeping my fingers crossed for you.

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