Taking a Kitten From Fearful to Playful

Socializing shy kittens doesn’t have to be complicated. For starters, view the world from their perspective.

Keep kittens stimulated and socialized with toys and games. By: cherrymerry
Keep kittens stimulated and socialized with toys and games. By: cherrymerry

Periodically, kittens show up at my home. Some have been so young that they’ve required bottle-feeding. Others have been old enough to chow down on their own and annoy the older cats on general principle.

The current gang falls into the latter category. They’re almost 8 weeks old and wildly playful. Human legs are moving cat trees — very climbable — and an empty paper towel roll has endless possibilities.

Sometimes they get frightened: The first time they heard the early-morning bird chorus through an open window, they scattered in all directions, seeking refuge under various pieces of furniture (note that this is something feral mothers will teach their kittens to do if danger arises).

Now they take the birdsong in stride. In fact, they’re trying to figure out how to get into the window that the birdsong comes from. And watching them is giving me some insight into what being a kitten is all about.

A Kitten’s Journey

In the beginning, there is only Mom. She is their sole source of all food and warmth.

Their sense of smell is keen, which is “very important for a very young suckling kitten,” explains Know Your Cat. “Indeed, most kittens claim a single nipple for themselves and recognize it with ease, probably by smelling their own pheromones deposited around the nipple during suckling.”

By the time they are 5 days old, kittens’ hearing becomes fairly acute. This might explain why my kitten friends freaked out when they heard those birds — although it might also have something to do with their fear of the unknown, as I found out when I turned the ceiling fan on last night (it was definitely an every-kitten-for-himself moment).

By the end of the second week, their eyes will have fully opened.

Within another week, they’ll start becoming aware of their littermates and may even, says writer Franny Syufy, “form ‘alliances’ which may or may not be gender-based.” They’ll also be getting curious about the world around them. Those paws don’t really start walking till week 4, however.

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Kittens are inquisitive about their environment and like to problem solve. By: naanuu

Sense and Sociability

Cats are problem solvers by nature, and this trait shows up fairly early. Already, one of the kittens upstairs has figured out how to not only access a bureau drawer from the back but also extricate herself (I leave the middle drawer slightly ajar).

A few weeks ago, my son and I set up one of those plastic play circuits. One kitten just patted at the rubber ball inside. Within a week, they were all pushing it along the track. Now they know how to push the plastic end caps off and free the ball.

Clearly, it’s important to have lots of things around for the furry little problem solvers to work with. “Kittens kept in a more complex environment for their first 2 months are less nervous later in life than those kept in unstimulating surroundings,” says Petfinder’s Jacque Lynn Schultz, CPDT. “Provide plenty of sensory stimulation.”

This includes:

  • Interactive toys
  • Bouncy balls
  • A small cardboard box with a door cut into it (Schultz advises against using fresh produce boxes for fear of pesticide residue)
  • A crinkle tunnel or a handle-less paper bag

Socialization is also key. The kittens’ world is expanding beyond mom and their littermates to include the humans around them. Start handling them gently when they’re between 2 and 3 weeks old. This will make them friendlier and more adoptable.

But there’s more to it than that. According to The Cornell Book of Cats, “handling kittens each day for the first month may improve the kittens’ learning ability.” In other words, a socialized kitten is a sharper kitten, and a cat who “never had the opportunity to play as a kitten will not respond to the appropriate play signals as an adult.”

Check out these tiny kittens’ sweet soccer moves as they kick the ball around together:

Are You My Mother?

Some kittens remain close to their moms. “Kittens and queens who stay together will groom each other long after the kitten is weaned,” says Melissa Schindler.

But kittens and their birth moms don’t generally end up staying together. Sometimes the kitten will latch on figuratively — and literally — to a spayed female at his/her new home. My first 2 Abyssinian kittens, Damiana and Solstice I, had their own governess: a spayed red Aby named Celtie. In time, they came to regard her as their mom.

Eventually, of course, the kitten will transfer these feelings to you, especially if he has grown up surrounded by warm, caring humans. You will become his surrogate mom, and he will regard you as such for the rest of his life.

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, which received a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has also received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association, ByLine and The Writing Self. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Single Parent’s Soul and A Cup of Comfort for Women in Love, and T.J. has worked as a stringer for the Associated Press, as an instructor for the Writer’s Digest School and as a columnist.

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