By Dr. Becker
Did your kitten go to kindergarten?
It used to be that only puppies were thought to need socialization and obedience training, but in recent years classes designed to train and socialize young cats and their humans have cropped up all across North America.
Kitten Kindergarten Classes
Kitten kindergarten is designed specifically for kittens 8 to 15 weeks of age who have received their first set of kitten shots. This is the period during which they are most receptive and open to learning new things and bonding with other kitties and humans.
During the meet-ups, young cats have the opportunity to interact and play with people and other kittens. The classes are typically equipped with a variety of cat toys and scratching posts (and litterboxes), and involve games to help kitties develop proper social and play behavior.
The goal of kitten kindergarten is to help teach positive behaviors, which will help prevent the development of troublesome behaviors in the future. For example, it's especially important for kittens who were taken from their mother and littermates too soon to engage in activities that teach bite inhibition.
Another benefit of the classes is that they typically take place over several weeks, which helps kittens get accustomed to going in and out of their carriers (more about that shortly), and riding in the car.
And if the classes happen to be held at a veterinary clinic, kittens get accustomed to that environment as well. When you enroll your kitten in a kindergarten class, you'll be told what supplies to bring. Common items include a cat harness and leash, and a brush.
Part of your kitten's training will involve learning to accept being brushed and having sensitive areas of her body handled (e.g., paws, tail, ears, and inside her mouth).
The Importance of Training and Socializing Your Kitten
According to brilliant animal behaviorist, the late Dr. Sophia Yin, one of the best ways to insure kittens find and stay in forever homes is to socialize them.1 Which is to say, give them positive experiences with lots of different people, animals, unfamiliar cats, new environments, and human handling.
Kittens exposed to these things during the critical developmental period of 8 to 15 weeks are more likely to be friendly and social adult cats. They are also better equipped to handle the everyday stresses of life, such as a change in their human's work schedule, or the arrival of a new member of the household.
Some of the things Dr. Yin and her staff taught in their kitten classes (you can find demonstration pictures here):
- Sit for a treat
- Respond to a come-here-and-sit command for a treat
- Targeting (involving the kitten touching an object with her nose), which can be used to teach many tricks such as spin, sit pretty, go into your litterbox, and come play with me
- Accept being held by offering food during handling
- Providing good experiences while the kitten is restrained, for example, holding him while offering canned food in a syringe
When they have the skills to cope, cats are much less likely to "act out" as kitties do when they're stressed – by spraying, for example, or eliminating outside the litterbox. They are also better able to be full members of the family rather than fearful cats who live under the bed.
Steps for Getting Your Kitten Accustomed to a Carrier
- Purchase the carrier before you pick up your kitten, and set it up in a quiet, low-traffic area of your home. Place some comfy bedding in there, and prop or tie the door open so that it can't accidentally close. Kitty may get curious enough to begin going in and out on her own.
- The next step is to entice her with food, so place her food bowl close to the carrier. Add a small amount of a special treat she loves on top of her meal to further tempt her. Once kitty is eating from the bowl without hesitation, start moving it closer each meal, until she's eating comfortably very close to the carrier.
- Next, place the food bowl inside the carrier, right at the entrance, so she can reach bites of food without having to actually step inside.
- Put a few of your kitty's favorite toys and treats into the carrier at random times. The idea is to associate only pleasant, fun, and yummy things with the carrier each time she investigates it. Consider placing some organic catnip in there. I've also found that spraying a feline facial pheromone like Feliway in the carrier several times a week can also be very beneficial, or using stress reducing flower essences for anxiety or fear.
- After several days of eating out of her food bowl placed just inside the carrier entrance, it's time to move the dish further in. Move it a few inches toward the back of the carrier each day, until she's standing completely inside as she eats.
- Once kitty is feeling at home in her carrier, try closing the door for a very short time with her inside, making sure to let her out before she becomes anxious or panics. Slowly extend the time in the crate by 30 seconds to a minute during each practice session. When you can close the door for significant periods of time without upsetting her, you can start bringing her along on short car rides to get her accustomed to being in her carrier in a moving car.
Each time you return home with kitty, go right back to providing meals, toys, and treats in the crate so she continues to associate her carrier with goodness. Ideally, your cat will come to view her carrier as a comfy, safe space.