A Cat is Influenced Greatly by Early Experience
A cat’s behavioral characteristics are determined by their genetics, the environment, and experiences. Feline boldness and acceptance of novelty and interaction vary with genetic predisposition and environment.
What a kitten is exposed to between two and seven weeks of life will dictate what kinds of experiences it can tolerate the rest of its life. This sensitive period of socialization is critical to mold a cat’s behaviors. If they have learned to enjoy interacting with people and other cats early, this behavior will likely continue.
During the first few weeks of life the kitten learns its social identity and how to feed itself. Its mother will wean it from suckling milk onto eating dead and, later, live prey. This process gradually introduces the kitten to every part of killing and hunting the prey it needs to survive. In a domestic setting the kitten also practices hunting behavior. The queen teaches kittens play behaviors such as batting, chasing and pouncing to help kittens learn to hunt. By participating in the play activities of kittens, using toys and games, we are taking part in their development in a very similar way to the mother and littermates.
Up to the age of about two months, the kitten is particularly sensitive to learning about its environment and establishing social bonds. Research conducted into the quality and quantity of handling during this ‘sensitive period’ shows there are distinct benefits to providing the necessary socialization in the right way – kittens between the ages of two to seven weeks that are handled in a calm and positive manner by different people tend to be more sociable towards humans than those that didn’t benefit from such handling.
This is also the age that kittens should be exposed to, and rewarded for positive experiences that they may need to accept later in life. Experiencing noise, children, dogs, vacuum cleaners, different locations and even car trips in a positive way, enables the kitten to learn that new experiences are not to be feared.
Social maturity occurs at approximately 2-4 years of age. This correlates with the time that an adult cat would be leaving the colony and moving away from the extended family group in which they were reared. Owners may see changes in how cats respond to each other as they reach this age. This period of social maturation can be upsetting for owners as they find that their cat may have developed different behavior characteristics. Often cats become less tolerant of new and changing elements of their environments and may even become less tolerant of feline housemates that were previously “friends” prior to this age.
This transition period in the cat’s life represents the time when it truly discovers the value of its territory and its capacity to live as an individual. Intact males will expand their territory entering into more conflict with other cats and becoming more assertive about territorial marking. Neutering greatly diminishes these characteristics and should be strongly encouraged for all cats not used for breeding, regardless of sex.
Take Home Message
- Kittens must engage in appropriate socialization experiences.
- Cats have unique personalities and not all cats are friendly or sociable with humans.
- There may be a limit to what can be done for nervous kittens which have not had the right early exposure and feral kittens may always be anxious