Every person who brings home a kitten, whether it be from a shelter or a breeder, has an idea of what they’d like that kitten to grow up to be like. Colour and size is often pretty obvious, but a huge amount of what makes a cat a good pet is temperament.
We want our cats and our kittens to be friendly, interactive, extremely people oriented, tolerant of novelty, capable of interacting with a wide range of people, and showing minimal stress in new environments, even busy ones.
Nature vs Nurture?
There are plenty of people out there who believe that the temperament of a kitten is all about how it is raised, and many who believe that it is all about the parents. I follow the current trend of a lot of scientific studies that can be summarized with the following quip: “Nature vs nuture? What’s more important to the area of a field, the length or the width?”
Genetics does play an important role in cats, otherwise, there’d be no point to purebred cats. Well bred kittens have a personality that fits within a specific breed temperament, which speaks quite distinctly to the importance of genetics.
We are focusing very strongly on breeding cats that have the temperament we’re looking for (mostly because we have to live with them and want to enjoy interacting with them and because tolerating cat shows is all about temperament too).
However, genetics is only half of the end cat. The other half is one that a breeder has even more control of.
Socialization and Habituation
One of the most important tasks as a breeder is socializing kittens, and unfortunately, one of the tasks that often done incompletely or without much thought behind it.
Let’s start with the basics. What is socialization and habituation?
From VetStream, the best definition I’ve seen so far, even if it is about dogs.
The process whereby an animal learns how to recognize and interact with the species with which it cohabits.
Socialization is normally limited to the animal’s own species in the wild but for the domestic dog it includes other species with which it cohabits, such as human and feline.
Learning that these, in all their variations of appearance and behavior, are normal reduces the potential for the development of fear and aggression motivated by fear .
Through interaction the socialized dog develops communication skills that enable it to convey intention and recognize and how to respond to the intentions of others.
The process whereby an animal becomes accustomed to benign environmental stimuli and learns to ignore them.
Socialization is the most important when a kitten is young. All animals have a critical socialization period in which they are relatively fearless and very driven to explore the world and learn what is and is not safe to interact with.
The critical period for kittens in which they learn that humans are good and fun to interact with is from 2 – 7 weeks. A kitten who has not had good experiences with humans before 7 weeks of age is not going to be as human friendly as one who has, and may be much more wild than others. In addition, cats should be, if at all possible, exposed to dogs and any other species possible at this age range.
There’s a key word there — ‘good and fun to interact with’. Socialization is about good or neutral experiences with other species, not bad ones. It’s important to keep in mind that socialization can backfire if they are scared or traumatized by other people or other pets.
We make sure that kittens are well socialized by interacting with them as much as possible (such a hard job :)), as well as inviting friends and other people over to interact with them. We have a small herd of cats in the house, including our Bengal mascot, two large dogs (a doberman and a standard poodle), and a flock of parrots. There’s a lot of possibility for kittens to learn about the appropriate ways to interact with other humans.
Although past the critical period, we also host kitten parties where people can come over and visit the kittens, and we welcome new kitten owners to come and interact with their new pets if they are close. Of course, all visitors must also give some love to the other cats in the house.
Just as important as forming strong bonds with people is the ability to tolerate novel environments. So many things happen in a typical household that can be scary to cats (and other pets). This is usually what people refer to when they say the kittens are raised ‘underfoot’.
We start from the very beginning — kittens are born in one of our offices, in a room that is right off the main part of our household. They hear people working and talking, cooking noises, dogs barking, vacuum cleaners, occasional cursing when Nemo jumps on someone’s shoulder for the ten thousandth time, yelling macaws and all other things, all while being kept safe and snuggled up with their mother.
As soon as they’re able to move around a little bit more, we expose them to different textures and things to climb over and around, little kitten toys and anything else we can think of.
Once their eyes are open and they’re capable of really understanding what’s going on, kittens are moved around on a regular basis in various kitten pens and tents to see other parts of the house, to hear other noises, to see dogs running around and other cats and birds. If the weather is nice, they will also go outside (although Ontario makes it challenging for many parts of the year).
As they get increasingly older and have been vaccinated, kittens start going on field trips for rides in the car, trips to parks or other people’s houses (if they’ll let us come over!), travel to the pet store and the vet’s office, and even trips to cat shows after they’re three months of age.
We make sure that all these experiences are good ones by modeling (bringing along a very well socialized adult cat, frequently Nemo, who can show them that this is all fine and not worth worrying about) and classical conditioning (pairing new stimuli with good things such as food. Feeding the kittens just before running the vacuum cleaner would be an excellent example of classical conditioning).
Stephanie is a trainer at heart, and ends up training just about every animal she interacts with. There’s a lot of training that happens with kittens by default that few people don’t really keep in mind. We teach our kittens to do a number of things that help them become better tempered adults using positive reinforcement.
- Body handling and tolerance of manipulation, which includes teeth brushing, nail trimming, show handling, and general exams. Kittens are also taught to tolerate being picked up by the scruff and restrained.
- Come when called. All of our cats come when called, and usually by name. If you’ve picked a specific name for your kitten, we’re happy to start the training with that name. They also usually come running to a fingernail tapped on a hard surface.
- Acceptance of confinement. One of the methods of habituation we use is confining the kittens in different parts of our house to get used to different noises without them skittering away. This has the benefit that it also teaches them to tolerate being confined. Kittens are also taught to enjoy being in a carrier.
- Harness training. It’s so useful to be able to take kittens and cats out and about, and the safest way to do so is to wear a harness. We teach our kittens to wear a harness very early.
Once upon a time, I adopted a one year old calico cat from the humane society in California. During that cat’s long life, she would not eat anything but kibble. Not canned food. Not raw. Not even cooked meat. Only kibble, and nothing but kibble.
When we started breeding cats, I talked to a number of my cat friends, long term cat owners, who all said the same thing: Please teach the kittens to eat different foods and use different litter. Cats can imprint on a single food and decide that they will never eat anything else. This is really challenging, particularly if they settle on a single brand, because it makes feeding them throughout their lives very hard.
Our adult cats will eat nearly anything not nailed down (one of them will even eat ORANGES), and we expose our kittens to everything we can think of. They eat canned food, dry food of different shapes, raw food, cooked meat, and small tidbits of anything that we can think of, including licking plates. The downside to this is that you’ll have a cat who will eat everything. The upside is you’ll have a cat who will eat anything.
We also use as standard a wood pellet cat litter which is strange enough that it usually teaches kittens to deal with all sorts of different textures, as it breaks down from hard pellets to soft sawdust as it gets wet. If you’re looking for a kitten from us and use something other than the typical clay or clumping litter, please tell us, and we’ll be sure to provide a litter box with your preferred litter as one of the options so that they get used to it.
The final mix to our method of creating well socialized kittens is to make sure that all the kittens are receiving the individual attention they need. The shyer kittens in a litter should be exposed to more things, the bolder kittens in a littler should learn more frustration tolerance through confinement and interaction with less tolerant adult cats.
In order to do all of this, we need to make sure we don’t have excessive numbers of kittens at a time, both because this is a very time consuming process, and because there’s no way to focus on the individual kittens if there are two or three dozen of them running around.
The Point of this Entire Essay
If you are buying a purebred kitten from a breeder, you should think about these things. You should ask about them. You are exchanging money for a pet that should live with you for at least fifteen years, if not more. If you’re adopting a kitten born at a shelter, you should ask what the shelter does to socialize them.
A well socialized, well habituated kitten who is used to variety and novel experiences is a joy to interact with and a wonderful pet who will provide entertainment for a long time.
This is the method we’re using to make those kittens, based on two decades of cat ownership and over a decade of indepth research into animal behaviour, training, and behaviour modification. It will be modified as time goes on and as we learn more, and it is a great deal of work.
Our kittens and our new kitten owners are worth the effort.