How to Talk To and Handle My New Kitten
Dr. Nicholas Dodman
One thing you have to remember when dealing with kittens, especially young ones, is that they are very impressionable. In the first few weeks of their lives you can set them up for success or failure based on your interactions with them and the way you treat them. If you care for them when they need care, have reasonable expectations of them, set limits of acceptable behavior, and protect them from adverse experiences, all should turn out well.
Raising kittens properly is an active process that requires you to understand how they interpret our behavior toward them. If kittens are ignored, rarely spoken to, and rarely handled, they tend to become self-sufficient to a fault. Conversely, too much attention can have negative consequences, perhaps leading to over attachment, attention seeking behaviors, and even status-related problems. It is better to aim for somewhere between these two extremes to develop a healthy, functional relationship. One of the key ways to promote a good relationship is through communication – clear communication. Having some verbal communications that the kitten understands is extremely helpful and is a positive and attainable goal.
The Spoken Word
Most people make the mistake of assuming that kittens understand every word we say. This is certainly not the case and, for them, even when properly educated, English is only a second language. Sure, they understand some things from the tone in which the address is given, but the syntax, verbiage, and sentence structure are beyond their comprehension. A good analogy is to imagine finding yourself in downtown Shanghai without knowing a word of Chinese. That's what it must be like for a new kitten finding itself airlifted from its nest into a new owner's home and being surrounded by a babble of voices. Of course, even a non-Chinese speaking person in downtown Shanghai would understand the tone of address. The person would automatically know whether the person addressing him was angry or agitated, calm or perturbed, attempting to communicate or snub. But that's about as far as the understanding would go. The same level of comprehension applies to our spoken address of new kittens in the home. With this in mind, it is important to keep your tone consistent and soothing. Remember, you're talking to a baby. Two reasonable deviations from "baby banter" that the kitten will understand are singsong tones of praise and the deeper, gruffer tones of admonishment. Of course, most communications should be in the form of neutral tones, and most of the balance should be in the high, singsong praise category. Admonishments should be used sparingly, used when they are due, and should be brief.
Up to now, all we've talked about is communication tones, which are extremely important both for kittens and adult cats. However, individual words will also come to mean things to kittens as they grow up. It's a good idea right from the get go to use certain words to cue key behaviors. In general, the words should be spoken in isolation so as not to confuse the kitten (or cat). For example, for those who go so far as to train their cat, you wouldn't ask a kitten to sit using the word sit in the middle of a sentence. Rather, the word sit should be spoken on its own and in a matter of fact neutral tone. The kitten can then be assisted into a sitting position using a lure or manual positioning technique. The kitten's vocabulary can be built upon over time until certain spoken words are useful in daily communication. Cats can learn many words but never really understand language, so don't expect too much of them in this respect. With youngsters and with adult cats, too, when the spoken word leads to the requisite behavior, a reward should follow – always.
Hands on Approach to Handling
Touching and handling young kittens, if done correctly, is a pleasure for both the kitten and for the owner. But actually it's even more important for the kitten, because our handling them, like their mother's grooming, leads to better bonding and accelerated development. Proper handling is a must if kittens are to develop optimally and strike up the best possible relationships with people. But how should handling be conducted? Looking at the two extremes, no handling is bad news for the kitten whereas rough or excessive handling can be equally detrimental. It is best to handle and pet the kitten in a way that it appreciates, not to short change it, yet not to smothering it in overly indulgent, perhaps unwanted way. There are two different approaches to petting and handling kittens. One is to pet them where they lie. The other is to lift them up and cradle them in your arms to pet them. Both approaches work well, but if the kitten is lifted up it should be lifted up properly. This means scooping it up from beneath and holding it securely, but not tightly, in such a way that it knows there is no chance of it falling. Whatever approach is employed, petting should be performed in a way that the kitten appreciates. Whenever handling or petting a kitten, pay close attention to its body language and affect. It is not hard to tell whether a kitten is appreciating your attentions or trying to escape. Acceptance, relaxation, and purring are good; resistance indicates that its time to stop. If you start handling or petting a kitten when it has had enough, it will be more likely to come back for more in the future. Read your kitten is the bottom line here. Human adults are not too bad at understanding kitten's cues, but children are often totally unaware what the kitten is trying to tell them. It is important for adults to properly supervise the interaction of children and kittens if supposedly enjoyable handling and petting sessions are to be positive experiences for the kitten.
As a final note, when it comes to communicating with or handling kittens, patience, consistency, and kindness are key to providing positive experiences for the kitten. To be engaged in the family fun should be a positive experience for the kitten that contributes to bonding. Fairness in all respects and protection of the kitten from unwelcome intrusions or assaults are imperative. At the same time, though, kindness and protection have to be tempered with realistic expectations and limit setting. For example, it is not unreasonable to train a kitten to sit to receive treats. Kittens should have proper mealtimes and rest times and should have scheduled exercise sessions. Like children, kittens benefit from communication with their owners, proper attention, rewards for jobs well done, and timely correction of inappropriate behaviors. Note, however, that "correction" does not mean physical punishment. Instead, correction should be accomplished by what is referred to as negative punishment - the withholding of a privilege that was otherwise in the offing. For example, if a kitten starts to bite too hard, exclaim No! or Ouch! Then, following the utterance, the owner should quickly extricate herself from the situation and withhold attention for a period. Using this approach the kitten will soon learn that certain behaviors cause withdrawal of the owner's attention and it will temper its behavior accordingly. With proper direction, there is no reason that the kitten will not grow up to be a confident but respectful cat that enjoys his human family and has fun with them, yet respects them. This is the basis for the development of a close and proper bond between an owner and their cat.