In cats, the sensitive period is from the 2nd to the 7th week of age, and is a time when kittens are exceptionally receptive to novelty, enabling them to habituate to a wide range of situations and to develop a multi-species identity through social referencing with other species (including humans).
Socialisation and habituation during the sensitive period of development are important in the normal emotional development of cats and in the prevention of behavioural problems. The amount of human handling and the number of human handlers a kitten experiences during this period has been shown to affect approach behaviour to familiar and unfamiliar people, as well as attempts to escape from people. Higher levels of handling were associated with reduced fear of people.
In one study, kittens exposed to a programme of enhanced socialisation were compared with a normally socialised group (control). Effects on behavioural problems, fear responses and the emotional bond with the owner were followed up at 1 year of age. Enhanced socialisation included increased handling, manipulation, play and times being taken away from the litter, through to the 9th week of age. Cats that had been given enhanced socialisation showed lower rates of fear responses towards people at 1 year of age, and their owners reported higher scores for “emotional support”, which is an indication of a better owner-pet bond. Regular gentle handling of kittens during the first six weeks of life has been shown to be associated with precocious development and novelty seeking, with kittens being more likely to approach novel objects and people.
Socialisation clases for kittens were pioneered in Australia by Kersti Seksel, under the title "Kitten Kindy". Apart from enabling social interaction between kittens, they are also an opportunity to teach owners about cat behaviour and social interactions, as well as providing basic information about diet, grooming, feeding and preventative health. These classes should be restricted to weekly sessions for kittens of 7 to 14 weeks of age, due to the risk of decease transmission. During classes kittens are also exposed to a wide variety of stimuli including different people, sounds, and handling. Although at this age the sensitive period is already finished, kittens can still benefit from learning to cope with mild stress events, and classically conditioned positive emotional responses.
Breeders and Transfer to the New Home
It is typical for the breeders of pedigree kittens to home them at 13 weeks of age or older, due to concerns about infectious disease and vaccination status. However, unless the breeder provides kittens with an enriched environment and opportunities to interact with a wide range of unfamiliar people then it is likely that fear and anxiety problems will develop. This tendency to home kittens long after the sensitive period has finished is a potential underlying factor in the apparently increased prevalence of stress-related problems in some oriental breeds of cat.
The minimum safe age for homing both kittens and puppies should probably be considered to be 8 weeks of age, when they are able to live independently from the mother and can survive on solid food.
- Collard, R.R. (1967) Fear of strangers and play behavior in kittens with varied social experience. Child Development. 38, 877-891.
- Casey, R., Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2008) The effects of additional socialisation for kittens in a rescue centre on their behaviour and suitability as a pet. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 114, 196 – 205.
- Meier, G.W. (1961) Infantile handling an development in Siamese kittens. Journal of Comparative Physiology and Psychology. 54, 284-286.
- Wilson, M., Warren, J.M., Abbott, L. (1965) Infantile stimulation, activity and learning by cats. Child Development. 36; 843-853.
- Seksel K. (2001) Training your cat. Hyland House, Melbourne, Australia.
This article has been written and expert reviewed by Jon Bowen BVetMed DipAS(CABC) MRCVS.
Date reviewed: September 9, 2014
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