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The social skills of shelter kittens

Kittens snuggle together
Kittens snuggle together
Kim Johnson

The majority of kittens that are available for adoption from a shelter or rescue group have been born to free roaming momma cats living on their own or the litter of kittens – or single orphaned kitten - has been found without a momma cat.

During the first few weeks of life, a kitten's primary concerns are eating, keeping warm and learning how to excrete on their own. But, this is also a critical time for their social and mental development.

The social and mental development of a kitten will help form its personality and will define how it will interact with humans and other felines. Where the kitten comes from, how it got to the shelter and who cares for it will all influence the social skills of these shelter kittens.

With a momma cat

Kittens rely on the interactions of others around them to mold their personality, shape their behavior and provide boundaries. This all starts very early on before a kitten is weaned. It is normally up to the momma cat and the siblings to provide this education.

The mother cat’s background – history and experiences - will influence her behavior and impact the degree of socialization of her kittens.

If the mother cat had previously lived in a home and ended up out on the streets because she was abandoned or got lost, she will most likely be quite friendly to humans and her kittens will follow her lead. Kittens born to and raised by stray momma cats that have been cared for by people tend to be more trusting and social themselves.

If the mother cat herself was born outside of a home – whether as a community cat or a cat all on her own – she may be more cautious or fearful around people. In these situations, her degree of socialization will depend on how much interaction she has had with humans in the past. If she is wary of people her kittens will pick up on this and mimicking her behavior will be less social and inclined to hiss and spit when approached by humans.

Without a momma cat

One of the primary factors influencing the social skills of kittens found without a momma cat is their age. The younger the kitten, the easier it is to have them adapt to being handled by humans and the more quickly they will know, like and trust humans.

Unweaned kittens that are placed in foster care where they are bottle fed and handled regularly by humans will become quite social and loving towards people.

Weaned kittens that have already left the nest before being rescued will tend to be more fearful with a strong flight or fight instinct. Even placed in a foster home prior to being spayed/neutered, these kittens need extra TLC, patience and understanding to help them overcome their instinctual fear of humans.

Questions to ask before you adopt

  • Where did the kitten come from?
  • How old was it when it was rescued?
  • Was it raised by its mother or a surrogate momma cat?
  • If it was not raised by its mother, was it placed in a foster home or did it live in a cage?
  • Was it bottle fed by humans prior to being weaned?

The answers to these questions will help you to understand the personality and social skills of the kittens you are thinking about adopting so that you can understand what additional help you may need to give the kitten so that it can be a well adjusted, social member of your family.

Adopt in pairs

Adopting kittens in pairs is better for the kittens and better for you. Although you may think you can be everything to the kitten, it simply is not true. And you will appreciate letting the duo expend their high energy by playing with each other rather than mis-directing that excess energy in a way that you would not want.

Kittens learn additional social and predatory behaviors from their siblings. It doesn’t take long to learn, “If I bite too hard, he squeals.”

Without another kitten around to play hunt, the single kitten will act out normal hunting behaviors on humans. This lack of necessary feline socialization may cause the solo orphan to grow into an aggressive cat; some of them even turn into chronic adult biters.

Kittens growing up together will also turn to each other for nurturing that can only be gotten from one of its own species. Although kittens will love their humans for pets, playtime, meals, treats and love, they are happier and healthier living with another feline.

In some cases where kittens are extremely bonded to one another, upon separation the single kitten will cry excessively, become uninterested in their surroundings and become increasingly withdrawn.

Many of the negative cat social behaviors we see in adult cats may be a result of their having been separated from littermates and forced to be only cats in a home of humans. Every species wants to live with at least one of their own and cats are no exception.

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