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Creating a Social "Friendly" Cat

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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The one thing that every new kitten owner dreams of is having their kitten grow up to become an adoring, confident, people-friendly cat; just like a good old-fashioned Maine Coon that dotes on its human family, loves all visitors, and is long-suffering to a fault (even when besieged by young children).

So how does one wind up with a super mellow cat like this? Not by chance, that's for sure. Good judgment, a proper understanding of the issues, and proper management are all involved. Judgment is involved in selecting the right breed and individual, because genetics plays an important role in determining temperament and behavior. Some breeds and breed lines seem to contain a higher proportion of skittish, overly anxious individuals than others. Thus, when selecting a new kitten, it is important to obtain an honest account of the behavior of the kitten's close relatives before making a commitment.

At the Breeders

The optimal way for a young kitten to be raised is within a family unit, in the kitchen or living room so that it spends its time with the family and exposed to the comings and goings of a normal home. This way, during an early period of the kitten's development, it will achieve optimal socialization learning experiences. Passive and active learning experiences will anneal a permanent trust of mankind. Less than ideal (or even frankly adverse) environments include: isolated rooms within the breeder's home, wire pens, basements, garages, barns, etc.

In the New Home

Assuming all is well with the kitten's genetic stock and early experiences, it is up to the new kitten owner to make sure that subsequent environmental exposure is optimal for development of the kitten's confidence and sociability. If a kitten is acquired at 8-9 weeks of age, the sensitive period of its development is over but it can still learn rapidly rate and will need nurturing, coddling, and socialization. Of course, if the start the kitten got at the breeders was sub-optimal, it is even more important to treat it properly during the first few weeks at home to help alleviate any psychological damage that has been done. Socially acceptable behavior, a.k.a. friendliness towards strangers, is no accident. It must be worked for if it is to be achieved. The Smith Barney advertisement says, "We make money the old-fashioned way, we earn it." Similarly, with respect to kittens and their trust of strangers, they must learn it.

One of the first maxims of medicine should be the first motto of raising a new kitten. First of all, do no harm. This means protecting the kitten against the unwelcome advances of bawdy people and unruly children so that it does not form a lifelong impression that certain people are bad news and are to be avoided or driven away (that comes later). Assuming this one premise can be upheld, the next, which is really the corollary, is that pleasurable, or at least neutral, exposure to an assortment of guests should be arranged so that the kitten can learn to like people. It is not enough to protect the kitten against unwelcome advances; there have to be positive learning experiences, too. Kittens should learn that strangers are benevolent and often come bearing gifts. One way to achieve this end is to arrange "kitty parties" in which a few kindly cat-friendly persons are invited to visit and play pass-the-kitty. Of course, gentle handling, coupled with petting, food treats, and games are in order. Sessions like this should be conducted once or twice a week during the critical first 3 to 4 months of ownership. They are the responsibility of any new kitten owner who wishes to end up with the adult cat of their dreams.

The challenge to the young cat can be incrementally increased over the ensuing weeks to include an eclectic bunch of strangers: short people, tall people, people with high voices, people with deep voices, etc. The common factor is that all the people speak kindly to the kitten, handle it gently, pet it, and offer treats. By the time the kitten is 14 to 16 weeks of age, exposure to strangers will have become an accepted part of its life. The kitten will have learned that strangers are not to be feared and that exposure to them is likely to be rewarding. Trust so garnered can be reinforced, as the kitten gets older, by implementing a slightly less rigorous, yet systematic, exposure of it to strangers under a myriad of different circumstances.

The same technique works to alleviate potential mistrust of other cats, though any cat engaged in such socialization with your kitten must be healthy, vaccinated, and well behaved, or the mission can backfire. What many owners often fail to appreciate about desensitizing a kitten to strangers or other cats (or dogs) is that involves a systematic approach, not a precipitous one. Anyone who hears advice like, "If your cat's nervous around children, bring him to kids party," or "If your cat doesn't like people, take him to the shopping mall and he'll meet thousands in one afternoon," must know, right off the bat, that this approach will not work. It is not desensitization, but what usually turns out to be a failed attempt at "flooding" (and often does more damage than it does good). Follow the yellow brick road outlined above and you should have no problems.

Producing the purrfect cat is not a question of nature or nurture, it's both. That's why it was so important to point out the necessity of obtaining the right individual (genetically speaking) as the substrate for one's dreams and aspirations. It is also important to choose the right type of breeder and to socialize your kitten intensively in the first few weeks after adoption. With real estate it's "location, location, and location." Well, with kittens, it's socialization, socialization, and socialization. If you, the kitten's new owner, are able to bring all these components together then you will achieve your dream cat. You will be able to have guests come over to your house without your cat hiding from the visitors or, even worse, attacking them. All this can be achieved. You can even improve a kitten that has not had the most ideal early life experiences by employing the spirit of socialization alluded to above into the juvenile period. And, if the worst comes to worse, even a cantankerous anti-social older cat can be turned around to some extent if the right approach is used. You can teach an old cat new tricks - it just takes longer. But the "unlearning" of fears is never complete so it makes better sense to start out right at the beginning with the easily malleable material, that is your new kitten, and to shape it, as if out of clay, as it were, into the confident individual that you want it to become.

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