- Behavior training takes time, patience, and consistency. The more consistent everyone in the household is with behavior management, the faster your kitten will learn.
- Spanking or hitting a kitten is unkind. These are not appropriate training methods and should not be used.
- It is always easier to prevent undesirable behaviors than to correct the behavior. However with kittens, some undesirable behaviors are part of the growing process. The next best strategy is therefore to quickly teach the kitten to stop the behavior before it becomes ingrained in his or her normal routine.
- When your kitten exhibits an undesirable behavior, applying this general philosophy can go a long way in eliminating the behavior:
- Stop the behavior (with a command like ‘No!’, with a loud noise, etc.)
- Redirect the kitten into an acceptable behavior.
- Praise the kitten for the good behavior.
When is the best time to socialize my kitten?
A kitten’s ‘socialization window’ is open until about 12 to 16 weeks of age. This means that we want to try and expose the kitten to a wide variety of things during this time period. The exposures during this time period can set up lifelong effects. Of course kittens can (and should!) be socialized after 16 weeks of age.
How do I socialize my kitten?
Try and expose your kitten to a variety of people, animals and situations. Encourage contact with people (especially children) as well as other pets in the house. This socialization should be done slowly though. At first, separate the new kitten from other pets in the house to allow them to smell each other without having direct interaction. After keeping them separate for a few days, you can allow the new kitten to socialize with current pets when under supervision. Keep in mind that other pets can easily harm a new kitten. Cats will generally establish their own pecking order naturally after several days (although it can take longer sometimes). Holding sessions of ‘parallel play’ can help pets warm up to the new kitten. This means that different family members are playing with the different pets in the same room at the same time, but the pets are not playing directly with each other.
A word of caution:
Always remember that kittens are more susceptible to infectious diseases. Their immune systems are still developing, so they may be less able to fight off infections. Additionally, they have not received all their kitten vaccinations before 16 weeks of age. Do your best to strike a balance between socializing while also being selective about what animals you allow your kitten to play with.
Playing & Environmental Enrichment:
- Kittens love to play! Be sure to offer your kitten a variety of toys that are safe. Do not offer things such as strings or ribbons because these can cause intestinal blockage if ingested.
- Toys should be rotated to avoid boredom with the toys.
- Kittens are pretty good at entertaining themselves thoroughly, but they also like to play with you. Try building in a set playtime into each day – so that you both can look forward to the time together.
- If you catch your kitten playing with or chewing on an inappropriate item, say ‘No!’ and take the item away. Then, offer the kitten an acceptable item. When the kitten takes the acceptable item, praise the kitten.
- Try and find ways to be creative with your cat’s environment to help enrich his or her day. Having low perches, high perches, and window perches can make your cat’s day more fulfilling.
Play Biting and Scratching:
Are play biting and scratching ok?
Play biting and scratching should always be discouraged. Play biting can either be an expression of chewing behavior, or biting and scratching can be from more aggressive playfulness. While it may seem ‘harmless’ now, it can cause the kitten to grow up thinking it is ok to bite or scratch people. Furthermore, kitten teeth and nails can be sharp and painful, and the play biting can still cause harm – especially to children.
How can I make my kitten stop play biting?
First and foremost – do not hit or spank the kitten. This type of punishment is unkind, and it will likely incite more biting because the kitten will think you want to play more roughly. Instead, when the kitten bites, you can try a few different things:
- Yelping like another kitten would yelp if it had been bitten too hard can be a natural signal to your kitten that the biting is not ok.
- Say ‘No bite!’ in a deep tone of voice.
- You can stand up and turn your back to the kitten, or walk away. This will signal that play time ends when the kitten bites or scratches.
- If your kitten chases after you and bites or scratches at your ankles, you can close a door behind you for just a few seconds.
Litter Box Training:
Establish a Consistent Litter Box Location:
- Pick a place to keep the litter box(es) and stick with it so that your cat can dependably find the box when he or she needs to use it.
- Consider where your cat will be spending time. If it is on more than one floor of a house, then there should be a litter box available on each floor the cat will be spending time.
Number of Litter Boxes:
- Have at least one litter box per cat in the house. If inappropriate elimination habits develop, increasing the number of boxes may be necessary.
Type of Litter:
- Cat preferences can vary for the type of litter used.
- Some cats will not like the scented litter.
- Pick one litter brand, and stick with it when it works.
Frequency of Scooping Litter Boxes:
- Litter boxes should be scooped daily, at the minimum. Not scooping the litter frequently enough can lead to inappropriate elimination.
How to Handle Accidents in the House:
- In the beginning, it’s best to not let your kitten out of sight. If you can’t keep any eye on him or her, then putting the kitten in a small room (like a bathroom or laundry room) with the litter box and water will help minimize accidents in the house.
- Do not scold the kitten after the fact. They will not understand why you are fussing at them.
- If you catch the kitten in the act, say ‘No!’ and carry the kitten to the litter box. If they finish eliminating outside in the right place, then you can praise them.
- Cats routinely resist having their mouth, ears, and feet handled. By gently handling these areas repeatedly during kittenhood, owners can help their kittens learn to accept this handling. When the kitten is resting and quiet, work on handling these sensitive areas. Gently touch the lips and gums. Do not allow the kitten to chew on your fingers. Handle the earflaps and gently touch the external ear opening. Finally, rub the feet between the toes, on the underside, and around the nails. Make this a pleasurable, bonding experience. Be sure to praise your kitten in a quiet, soothing voice.
Carrier Acceptance & Minimizing Transport Anxiety:
- Cats can be trained to accept, and even walk into, carriers.
- Use the carrier to your advantage! Cats love to sit on things and inside things. If you place the carrier somewhere in your cat’s environment and just leave it there with a snuggly blanket inside, your cat may start going inside the carrier willingly. Offer treats inside the carrier to also encourage your cat to willingly walk in.
- Now, when you have to take your cat somewhere in the carrier, he or she can walk right in if you toss a treat inside.
- When you do have to travel with your cat (e.g. to come to the clinic), there are some other things you can do that will help minimize your cat’s anxiety. Try spraying the synthetic feline facial pheromone Feliway on a blanket or towel that is in the carrier about 20 to 30 minutes before you need to get your cat in the carrier. You can also put a special toy, treat, or catnip inside the carrier. Environmental changes can be stressful, so you can minimize visual stimulation by placing a lightweight towel over the carrier. Make sure there is still an area that is uncovered for airflow, and don’t let your cat get too warm sitting in there.
- When you carry your cat in the carrier, it’s best not to use the handle, Instead, carry it with both hands like a box so that your cat is more supported.
- While some owners feel their cats are happier going outside, it is important to realize that there are added risks outdoors. Wild animals, fights with other cats, or motor vehicle trauma are all real risks. Additionally, there is increased potential for exposure to infectious diseases, and internal and external parasites.
- Cats who have been declawed should not be allowed to go outdoors as they no longer have their protective claws.
- If your cat will go outside, we recommend first testing for Feline Leukemia / Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) to make sure your cat tests negative. Your cat should then receive the Feline Leukemia vaccine series, in addition to the other core vaccinations.
- Outdoor cats should receive monthly preventive medications for internal and external parasites.
- While we recommend annual fecal testing on all cats, this is especially important for cats who spend time outdoors.
Author: Dr. C. Noureddine, DVM, MS, MS