Unfamiliar noises and smells, unknown people, other animals and loud household appliances are some of the many things that a kitten must get used to in its new home. Here, you will read the best way to socialise your cat and how to make it easier for your kitty to settle in.
When you first adopt a cat, it is an exciting time for all involved including the new owners, but also for the cat itself which must get used to its new house, unfamiliar people and a new daily routine. How your cat copes around the family, other animals and unfamiliar situations depends on how well socialised it is. But what does that mean exactly? How and at what age should a cat be socialised, and can older cats still be socialised?
What is meant by socialising?
Generally, the term socialising describes the process of settling into a community and adopting certain behaviours. For cats this means that they must learn that they can trust their new human family and that unknown people or animals pose no danger. They learn that small children can be loud, that household appliances can make curious noises and that riding in the car isn’t so bad at all. They learn where to find their food, how to use the litter tray and how far to push it when playing and tumbling around. Ideally, a cat will learn all of these things in the first three months of its life. The earlier your cat comes into contact with different people, animals, sounds and smells, the more positive this learning experience will be, and your cat’s behaviour will be more relaxed.
Why is socialising important?
Cats that haven’t been properly socialised develop behavioural problems later on. They become overly shy, are easily frightened or become jumpy and sometimes act aggressively. Whereas some of these behaviours are harmless and can even be cute, for example, burying its head in a cushion, other peculiarities can interfere with your life together. It becomes annoying when the cat scratches the furniture and the walls, when it miaows incessantly or when it urinates on the carpet instead of in the litter tray. It becomes very problematic when your cat shows its claws while playing or bites when unfamiliar people go to stroke it. Being fully socialised is necessary for living together harmoniously and without stress. Both the owner and the cat will benefit from this and the cat will have a much more relaxed, settled and friendly approach to life.
Laying the foundations in the first few months of life
Whether a cat develops into a cuddly and even-tempered pet or a wild and reserved outsider doesn’t only depend on its breed and genetics, but also on its environment and experiences. The most important time for shaping the cat’s character is the first three months of the cat’s life, in particular between 4 and 12 weeks of age. The experience that the cat gathers during this developmental phase will stick in the memory and have a lot of influence later in life. In the best-case scenario, the cat will still be with its mother at this stage because the mother cat plays a crucial role in socialising her young.
The mother's role
Responsible breeders will give their kittens to the new owners after they reach 12 weeks old and leave them with the mother until then. The mother is the most important caregiver and the most influential role model for the kittens in the first weeks. The kittens observe her interactions with their siblings and with people and so assume the same behaviour. If the mother cat is relaxed around her owners, allowing herself to be stroked and going to them, her kittens will also learn to trust humans quickly. When playing with the kittens, the mother cat shows them how far they can take it. If they bite or scratch too hard, the mother cat will intervene and set the boundaries.
The breeder's responsibility
The mother cat’s socialisation is therefore an important requirement for socialising the little ones. If you want to purchase a kitten from a breeder, you should pay attention to how the mother cat reacts to the breeder and to you during your visit. If the mother cat reacts timidly or aggressively, runs into the furthest corner or hisses, the kittens will also learn this behaviour. On the other hand, if she happily allows herself to be stroked or picked up by the breeder and looks inquisitively at the unknown visitor, this is a good sign that the kittens are being raised in an appropriate and loving way.
How to help your cat settle in now that you are home
Leaving the mother and moving into a new home is an immense change for a small kitten. It must, of course, get used to the new surroundings, people, smells and noises. The better the kitten was socialised by the mother cat and the breeder, the easier it will find it to engage with new and unfamiliar situations. However, that doesn’t mean that socialising the cat is solely the responsibility of the breeder and the mother cat. The foundations are laid in the first few weeks of life, but the cat can and should be socialised after 12 weeks of age. This responsibility lies in your hands and you, as the owner, can do a few things to make the start of your cat's new life a little easier.
Five helpful tips to get you off to a good start
- Provide your cat with a safe retreat
Even if your kitten is still very curious, all of these new experiences can sometimes become too much. It is important that your kitten can retreat to a safe hideout where it is quiet and it can process these new experiences. You should decide where this place will be before the cat comes to live with you. A cosy cat basket with a soft blanket in a quiet corner of your home is ideal. In addition to this, you should install some hideouts up high because cats feel safer in high up places. This could be a scratching tree for example, or simply a cat blanket on a high up windowsill or a safe and stable shelf.
If your cat is already used to a transport basket, you can leave this out in the room at first. This way, your cat can escape there if it is ever startled. Even a large over-turned cardboard box with a small opening and a soft blanket inside can be a safe place that many cats love to hide in.
- Let your cat take the lead
It is important that you never hassle your cat or force it to do anything. Never drag your cat out of its hideout just because a visitor wants to stroke your new pet. Understand when your new feline friend needs some peace and quiet and wants to retreat. A cat won’t become tame just because it is picked up all the time! Instead, you should go about your usual routine at home and let it know that you are there and that it can come to you whenever it likes. At some point, your kitten's curiosity will get the better of it and it will venture out of its hiding place by itself.
For cats to overcome their shyness, it is helpful to get down to their eye level. This way, you are less of a threat and it will be easier for your cat to approach you and allow you to stroke it. For example, you can make yourself comfortable on the floor in front of the sofa. Sit down on the carpet or on a blanket and read a book, listen to the radio or watch some quiet television. When your cat then approaches you, let it sniff your hand then stroke it slowly down its back and around its cheeks. Praise your cat whenever it comes close with soft caresses or with a small treat to show it that it should be happy in your presence.
- Introduce your cat to many things without overdoing it
A cat should be introduced to as much as possible in the first few months of life for it to lose its natural wariness. This includes many things that it will come across in its day to day life, such as different animals, unknown people, cars, kitchen equipment, vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, music and much more. That said, you should never overdo it. Your kitten also needs time to understand all of these new sensations. Be patient and introduce your cat to new things gently. Watch your cat carefully and leave it in peace when its mannerisms indicate that it is feeling tense. Once your cat has learned to trust you and your family and rubs itself against your leg while purring, it is ready for strangers to visit. You can invite both adults and children round so that your cat learns that people come in all different shapes and sizes, but a big party with lots of people in a small space and loud music will still be too overwhelming at the start.
Just as all people are not the same, no cat is the same. While some cats are very amenable and confident, others are naturally more scared and distrusting. Respect your cat’s individual character and be patient if it doesn’t settle in straightaway. Whereas some cats might be completely used to the new environment, new family and the daily routine after just a few weeks, others need at least two months or more to learn to trust. If you are loving towards your cat and don’t pressurise it, shout at it or act frustrated when it hides or makes a mistake, it will come out of its shell at some point, almost of its own accord.
Can older cats still be socialised?
Of course, not every cat is lucky enough to have grown up in a loving and well-adapted home where socialising was a priority. Some kittens are taken away from their mother too soon, grow up without contact with their siblings or loving people and are alone from early on. The older the cat and the worse its experiences in the past were, the harder it is for the cat to learn to trust and to integrate. Nonetheless, older cats can still be socialised. Those who want to give a cat like this from an animal shelter a second chance must be very patient and dedicate lots of time to socialising the cat. Those who go about it the right way, allowing the cat time and space to retreat and always act calmly and lovingly without harassing, will notice sooner or later that the cat will open up to you slowly of its own accord and will learn to trust again. Once the ice has been broken, older cats are often cuddlier and more affectionate.
Patience pays off - including when introducing other pets
Being patient will pay off greatly when socialising your cat. Don’t expect your cat to be comfortable with everything right from the start, including allowing itself to be stroked by everyone or getting along with children and other animals straightaway. Proceed with caution and let it get accustomed to its new home slowly.
When introducing your new cat to your other pets, it is sensible to keep them in separate rooms to begin with and allow them to get used to each other’s scents. Let your dog or your older cat have a sniff of the newcomer’s carry case and give the new cat a toy or a blanket belonging to the other pet to smell. Combine that smell with something positive, for example, leave the object near the food bowl. Your pets will get to know each other slowly through their scents and they will come to understand that the other one doesn’t pose any threat to their resources. What’s more, you don’t need to worry that your pet will become less friendly towards people or less cuddly when a new pet moves in. The opposite is usually the case, and, in most cases, the whole family will benefit from living with several pets.