Raising Kittens to Be Happy and Healthy

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Guest post by Elizabeth Colleran, DVM

Six weeks ago, a young female cat was dropped at the backdoor of our veterinary clinic. It happens, though not often. One of the assistants picked up the box she came in and put her in our isolation ward. We are always cautious about strays; two people are always required to be present if we are going to handle them.

She was alone for a bit while the assistant awaited the arrival of another staff member. When she arrived, they opened the box containing the stranger, who was in the process of delivering kittens. In time, six of them.

We named her June. Her maternal skills were wonderful despite the fact that she was only about 9 months old. She loved people. Human company was better than food. When kittens are raised by a queen who is unafraid of people, they tend to be more easily socialized to humans. We thought we might have stumbled onto an opportunity to raise some really great companions.

The best time to socialize kittens

The precise timing of the “sensitive” period for socializing kittens was found through a series of experiments. Batches of kittens were handled for periods of four weeks starting at different weeks. From this, the investigators identified the sensitive period as beginning at 2 weeks and ending at about 7 weeks. If socialization has begun during this time a cat’s reactions to humans will continue to change over the next couple of months.

Other researchers found that in pet cats the amount of handling received during the sensitive period produced a different effect on their reaction to handling at four months old, but not thereafter, suggesting this aspect of the cat’s relationship with people continues to take shape throughout the first 4 months of life.

The best way to socialize kittens

Up to a certain limit, the more handling a kitten receives, the friendlier she will be towards humans. Kittens handled for 40 minutes a day subsequently approached a person more quickly and could be held for longer than kittens handled for only 15 minutes a day.

The number of different handlers that a kitten experiences can also determine his reaction to strangers. Cats that have been handled by only one person will not stay as long with a stranger as cats who have been handled during the sensitive period by four people. After several humans have been encountered, it seems that there is a generalization that transfers to all humans.

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Raising June’s kittens the right way

Armed with all this information, we knew we could raise great kittens. June would model for them how safe she felt with humans. Her demeanor around us was perfect for the kittens to see. We had plenty of people thrilled to play with kittens every day.

Now, there are six playful healthy kittens in our adoption room who think that people are pretty fun. They wrestle with each other, follow June around, sleep in piles and play with us. We will find wonderful loving homes for them, and those homes will be richer for it.

Dr. Elizabeth Colleran is a 1990 graduate of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. She holds a Masters of Science in Animals and Public Policy, also from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. In 2011, she was the President of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP). She is a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, Specialty in Feline Practice. As the spokesperson for the AAFP initiative Cat Friendly Practice, she speaks at major conferences around the country.  Dr. Colleran owns the Chico Hospital for Cats in Chico, CA and the Cat Hospital of Portland in Portland, OR.

Photo of June with her kittens by Chico Hospital for Cats, used with permission.

11 Comments on Raising Kittens to Be Happy and Healthy

  1. Steven Howard
    January 7, 2018 at 5:22 pm (2 years ago)

    What can be done, for instance, to help reassure a cat who wasn’t properly socialized and bonded with as a kitten. She is still young, very friendly, and purrs loudly when picked up but rarely jumps up in laps on her own. Is this a personality quirk or an error on my part during kittenhood?

    Reply
  2. Maria
    June 9, 2016 at 2:47 am (3 years ago)

    My rescue Mina was only 7months old when she delivered 5 beautiful and healthy kittens. Due to several complications after a c-section she had, I had to help her to raise her babies.She was really helpful and let me touch and handle her kittens. As if she understood I was only trying to help her. Despite her young age and the pain of a new surgery after the c-section, she has always been a sweet mum, with great maternal skills. Now the kittens are 7 weeks old and they are playful and sociable. They follow me everywhere and love beibg with me. I make them interact with other humans and they liked it. Even my male cat Wicho loves them, helps Mina to clean the babies and takes care of them. They sleep together as a family.

    Reply
  3. stacy hurt
    June 3, 2014 at 1:07 am (5 years ago)

    I’ve also found that kittens that ‘go limp’ when handled, are easily flipped over on their backs (cradled in arms) tend to be much more social and loving than kittens who are only pet a lot and held in a lap. I have four kittens in foster care and handling each of them 40 minutes a day would be difficult. Glad that I can lie in their room and have them come purring to be on me must count for something too.

    Reply
  4. Bernadette
    June 2, 2014 at 12:15 pm (5 years ago)

    92 kittens are currently in the hands of foster homes among the rescuers I know, some motherless and young enough to need to be bottle-fed, many with infections, injuries or illnesses, others with moms who range from attention-seeking divas to hissy spitty unsocialized street girls, but in the end the kittens, and even the less-than-friendly moms, will find love in the hands of a human and be wonderful feline companions.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      June 2, 2014 at 4:39 pm (5 years ago)

      ‘Tis the season, Bernadette, isn’t it? I hope all of them find homes soon!

      Reply
  5. Missy Frye
    June 2, 2014 at 9:45 am (5 years ago)

    What a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing this beautiful journey and imparting the valuable wisdom about cat socialization.

    Reply
  6. Kurek kitties
    June 2, 2014 at 9:12 am (5 years ago)

    We have 3 kittens that we are fostering that were placed with us at about 6 weeks of age that were (as I called them) hissy, spitty & growly. After more than 2 weeks the boys are so much more handleable and not nearly as weary of humans. The female is less trusting, but coming around. Patience is key, but we have “kitten socialization” gatherings where friends of all ages come over to play, touch & feed the kittens so they get used to all sorts of different friends. They need to be exposed to men, women, kids, other cats, dogs, etc for their best chance at a forever home.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      June 2, 2014 at 4:39 pm (5 years ago)

      Your kittens are going to be so well socialized – that’s wonderful!

      Reply
  7. Mary Beth Randall
    June 2, 2014 at 6:50 am (5 years ago)

    This is a really neat article. This helps me understand why Saul who we got at around 4 weeks is so good with us. It was later on though before other people started to interact with him. As a result he is shy with new people. If a person keeps coming over he gets to know them and becomes very friendly with them. He is such a wonderful cat and has become one of the best cats we have had over the years. What I could see of the photo showing the kittens they seem very cute and I admit that there is a part of me that wants another kitten so that Saul will have a play mate. But in reality I do not want to stress out the two 12 year old cats just now. I hope they all find excellent homes. Chico is only about three hours from here so I know they will find loving homes in that area.

    Mary Beth, Tom, and the fur family

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      June 2, 2014 at 4:38 pm (5 years ago)

      I think you’re probably wise to not stress your two older cats with a new kitten right now, Mary Beth.

      Reply

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