The Ideal Time to Socialize Your Puppy or Kitten

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

cat and dog socialization

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  • Between 3 and 14 weeks of age for puppies, and 3 and 9 weeks of age for cats, your pet will go through a sensitive, impressionable period during which her experiences will shape her adult personality and behavior
  • During the extent of the sensitive period, providing your dog or cat with daily, positive and diverse experiences provides proper socialization
  • Depriving your puppy or kitten of daily exposure to new people, animals, objects and experiences during this time can increase their risk of developing into an adult who is fearful, anxiety-prone or fear aggressive
  • During the earliest weeks of life, puppies and kittens should have daily opportunities to safely interact with other members of their own species and should be held and handled by a variety of humans daily
  • Socialization should include exposure to a variety of safe environments, experiences, people and animals that the animal is likely to encounter in daily life later on
  • Appropriate early socialization sets the stage for balanced behaviors and a well-adjusted pet years down the road and ongoing, strategic socialization throughout the animal’s first year of life should be every pet owner’s goal

Taking the plunge and making the lifetime commitment to new puppy or kitten is an exciting time and also when the extremely important socialization process takes place. Between 3 and 14 weeks of age for puppies, and 3 and 9 weeks of age for cats, your pet will go through a sensitive period during which her experiences (or lack of experiences) will shape her adult personality and behavior.

During this time, young animals are highly impressionable to a range of different experiences, and providing a multitude of safe, positive exposures to a variety of people, places and things during this time will help your pet grow into a friendly, confident and well-adjusted adult, down the road.

With careful planning and preparation, the socialization period can be both fun and rewarding for you and your pet and ensure that your pet has the most fulfilling life possible. In my opinion, how successfully you navigate this crucial developmental period is one of the most important factors in determining your pet’s emotional balance for the rest of their lives.

What Does It Mean to Socialize Your Pet?

During the sensitive period, providing your dog or cat with a multitude of daily, positive and diverse experiences provides proper socialization. While you’ll want to avoid overstimulation (always allowing your animal’s responses to set the pace) depriving your pet of exposure to new people, animals, objects and experiences can increase their risk of developing into an adult who is fearful, anxiety-prone, has maladjustment issues or is fear aggressive.

In fact, there is a wealth of research showing just how important proper socialization is for puppies and kittens to avoid the development of problem behaviors. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA):

“[P]uppies and kittens who lacked early non-fearful exposure to a range of environments, people, and animals may become afraid and avoid these situations. In general, animals reared in barren environments (both socially and physically) are unable to deal effectively with the environment and activities a normal companion animal will experience.”1

For instance, dogs who attended puppy classes before 12 weeks of age were less likely to become fearful or aggressive, and those that were properly socialized were also more likely to engage in positive social behaviors with their owners and even learn to play games with humans better than dogs that didn’t receive proper socialization.2

In the case of cats, if kittens are born to a feral cat, it’s proper socialization that allows them to become adoptable pets. Adult feral cats, who live independent from humans, typically prefer to stay that way, but kittens that are socialized and exposed to humans, dogs and the experiences that come along with living in a home can be adopted into loving homes.3

Early Socialization From 3 to 5 Weeks

During the earliest weeks of life, puppies and kittens should be able to interact with other members of their own species (ideally littermates), as well as different types of people (adult males and females, kids, etc.). During this time, most of these animals are still nursing from their mum, so socialization begins at the breeder or rescue facility.

Experts agree socialization experiences should begin shortly after birth and responsible rescues and breeders instituting early learning and exposure programs are usually excited to share this information with you. Puppy Culture and Avidog are two programs many people follow.

Whether you are buying an animal from a responsible breeder or adopting a puppy or kitten from a shelter, it’s very important to ask what socialization program was utilized, as one of your first interview questions.

This is another reason to never buy from pet stores (who get their stock from puppy and kitten mills): these animals have little to no healthy socialization experiences during critical developmental windows, potentially fostering a lifetime of behavior issues down the road. 

Whoever is caring for these brand-new lives prior to you taking them home are responsible for instituting a robust and safe socialization program before weaning. Evidence is mounting that early exposure to healthy soil is also important for immunologic development in young animals; the Canine Health Soil Project is investigating this in more detail. Obviously, these responsibilities shift to you the day you bring your new bundle home.

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Socialization at 8 to 12 Weeks

Most puppies and kittens stay with the litter until at least 8 weeks, and it’s around this age that they may transition into a new forever home. Socialization continues at this age and should include safe exposure to a variety of experiences, people and animals that the animal is likely to encounter in daily life.

Puppy and kitten socialization classes can be helpful at this age, provided they’re well run, but you’ll also want to provide positive experiences on a daily basis outside of class. For instance, allow your puppy or kitten to regularly meet people of different ages, genders, ethnicities and sizes.

Be sure they’re also routinely exposed to items a person may carry or use, such as a hat, umbrella or briefcase. Your pet should get used to encountering different surfaces, such as grass, sand, concrete and carpet, and can venture out into the neighborhood for walks on a leash or harness (for puppies), travel by car and trips in a carrier.

Make a point to engage all of your pet’s senses, including sight, sounds and smells, during this period. Offer a variety of natural, safe toys, with different shapes, sizes and textures, along with different litter materials and even unique surfaces to explore to encourage play and exploration.

Fireworks, vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, alarms, blenders and garden hoses all have something in common: they are the sounds of life, and it’s important your pet experiences all of these things (and more!) early on and learns there’s no reason to fear them.

Even at a young age, kittens and puppies will vary in their willingness to approach new activities and people. You want the experiences to be safe and positive, so if your pet shows signs of anxiousness, do not force her to proceed. Allow your kitten to explore at her own pace and reward new encounters with play time or treats. During this time you are also building confidence and trust, two important building blocks for a lifelong, healthy relationship.

It’s also important to get your pet used to handling, paying special attention to handling their paws for nail trims and introducing a toothbrush for teeth cleaning. Also expose your pet to water, including bath time for your puppy, but remember to go at your pet’s pace and don’t force her into new experiences: allow her to gain the confidence to explore each situation at her own pace.

“Puppies and kittens should not be verbally or physically reprimanded for non-compliance, rather slower exposure is necessary,” AVMA explained.4 Keep socialization sessions brief and don’t try to introduce too many new experiences at once.

Dog parks, parades and sporting events are examples of potentially dangerous experiences that may lead to sensory overload for your young pet and are better off avoided at this stage. The idea is to keep it fun and enjoyable, and always give your pet some time for respite afterward. Here are Guide Dogs of America’s puppy socialization suggestions.

Socialization Is a Lifelong Process

While you can’t replace the sensitive period that occurs early in life, socialization doesn’t end when your pet reaches 12 weeks. It’s important to continue socialization opportunities daily for the first year of life, and continue reinforcing them beyond that. It’s also very possible that you may adopt a dog or cat that’s older with an unknown socialization history.

In such cases, you can still provide new experiences for your pet, but you may need to do so gradually and respect your pet’s personality in helping them to reach a sense of security before moving forward. If your pet seems very distressed by ordinary experiences or interacting with new people or animals, seek the help of a fear-free animal trainer especially if you suspect the animal may have been abused or under-socialized.

Well-structured, positive classes can also be helpful, giving your dog the opportunity to be around other pups, but from a slight distance, but you can also arrange for a low-pressure “play date” if you have friends with dogs. Even going for regular, daily walks can provide socialization opportunities for adult dogs, while cats can benefit from short introductions new people and sounds around your home.

Obviously, these early socialization suggestions don’t apply to those of us who rescue adult animals with unknown backgrounds, but the good news is with patience and appropriate management, even dogs and cats that missed out on the “ideal” socialization can adjust and become wonderful pets and companions with a lot of diligence, on our part.