When you acquire a new kitten, things that you do, or don’t do, can make a big difference to the way the kitten turns out. Happy and confident adult cats don’t just happen but are the product of good decisions and correct treatment of the kitten from birth right up until the juvenile period (around 6 months of age). A kitten’s genetic makeup may be out of your control once you have selected the right individual for you, but you can sculpt or distort the raw clay of your kitten’s genetic legacy by how you look after him and act toward him. If you do the things right – and, most importantly, prevent things that are potentially damaging – the kitten will turn out to be (as the US Army advertising jingle goes) “all that he can be.”
The so-called sensitive period of development for kittens is between 2 and 7 weeks of age. The sensitive period has been defined as a time during development when the kitten is most sculptable by environmental influences. This is a time when primary social relationships and emotional attachments develop between kittens and people and between kittens and other animals. Note that most of the sensitive period has elapsed at the normal time for adoption. However, that does not mean that learning stops, just that it slows down, so it is still important for new kitten owners to get a grasp of the essential features of proper socialization and training. It does mean though, that what has happened at the breeders will influence your kitten’s temperament and behavior for the rest of its life so it is as well to consider this carefully. As cute as 7-week-old feral kittens may be, they will never be good around most people. Alternatively, a kitten raised in the kitchen of a friendly breeder’s busy home may be, in a manner, immunized against many of life’s surprises. Paws to consider!
How to raise a good kitten has been discussed by numerous authorities though the message has still not percolated through to all new kitten owners. In essence, when raising a newly acquired kitten, owners should concentrate on being patient and considerate while using positive reinforcement to reward acceptable behavior. Negative punishment (withdrawal of some benefit) can be employed in the event of any deliberate, unacceptable behavior. But even informed owners sometimes fail to appreciate the absolute no-no’s of raising kittens. True, some of the most important caveats are simply the converse of what should be done, but it doesn’t hurt to include these items in the list for greater clarity.
Punishment teaches a kitten nothing, except how to avoid the punishment. It is far better, and far more humane, to teach the kitten what to do rather than to punish it for something it is doing. Also note, that punishment after the fact is not only inappropriate; it is pointless. The only type of positive (direct) punishment that might, on occasion, be acceptable is that delivered remotely by some anonymous contraption. E.g. some kind of booby trap arrangement to discourage kittens from “counter surfing.”
Setting one’s standards high is one thing but a kitten cannot do what a kitten cannot do (or doesn’t understand). Temper your expectations. Go with the flow. Also note, training takes time. Don’t expect a kitten (or cat for that matter) to learn how to sit on command in one session. It may take three.
Kittens need to scratch various materials. Scratching is a natural feline behavior, not something designed to make you unhappy. Don’t declaw the kitten to solve your problems with a furniture-scratching kitten. Instead, make sure the kitten has plenty of places to scratch that are acceptable to you. The rule is N+1 scratching posts [where N = the number of cats in the house]. Use logs, tree branches, old furniture etc. Cover surfaces to be scratched with easily shredable carpet or hessian). Don’t employ scratching post that are too small or wobbly. Don’t hide them away. That destroys the point of scratching for the cat. Scratch marks are meant to be seen.
The outside world is full of hazards for a young cat. There are coyotes, hawks, automobiles, and dreaded diseases. Occasional excursions outside on lead are acceptable but make sure you stay with the kitten as it explores.
This may sound incompatible with the 4 above but it really isn’t. Kitty parties at home are a good way of socializing kittens to strangers and other animals. Arrange to have people with whom the kitten is unfamiliar visit your home under pleasant circumstances. Rent a movie. Watch a ball game. The strangers are encouraged to interact positively with the kitten, passing it between them and treating it kindly. These gatherings should be held once a week (preferably 2 or 3 times weekly) until the kitten is 4-5 months old. It is a good idea to include people of all types. This is active socialization to people. It is a good idea for some of them to bring along friendly dogs, if you don’t have dogs at home.
It’s okay to burble along to your kitten as you take care of it, but just don’t expect it to understand anything apart from the tone of your address. Kittens can learn a number of word cues (“commands”) – even hundreds of them – but the words are simply sound cues.
It comes as a surprise to many people to learn that children and kittens, though both cute, cannot be trusted alone together. Bad things tend to happen. The most obvious one is that the child will do something bad to the kitten by way of experimentation and the kitten will respond adversely. This will not do the child or kitten any good.