4 Steps to Socialize Kittens & Create Confident, Friendly Cats

Kitten socialization is most important between the ages of 2 and 8 weeks, but it's never too late to socialize your cat.

Published May 9, 2023
woman with a Hungarian Pointer dog and a small kitten in her arms lying at home in a room on a bag chair

Chances are, you want to show your new kitten to everyone you know. We're here to tell you ... you absolutely should! Introducing a new kitten to different people, other pets, and new situations is essential. Focusing on handling and providing them with new sights and sounds early in life will help them develop into cool and confident adult cats. However, too much too soon can have the opposite effect. Approach kitten socializing the right way for the best outcome.

Why Is Socializing Kittens So Important?

Socializing isn't just helpful for kittens; it's critical to their development. They need to interact with people, other cats, and pets at an early age in order to develop relationships with others.

You'll also want to expose them to all kinds of smells, sounds, and different feelings they'll likely encounter later in life. The key is creating a positive experience around these interactions to help teach your cat that being handled, meeting another cat, or trying a new activity isn't something to fear.

Need to Know

Why socialize? Early socializing will help your kitten grow into a friendly and confident cat.

At What Age Should Kittens Begin Socializing?

You can start socializing kittens as early as 2 weeks old (any younger and it's unsafe to handle them), and experts believe between 2 and 8 weeks is the most critical period where kittens undergo social development. This is often referred to as the "socialization period." But if you don't find or get your kitten until they're older, that's OK. Just start socializing as soon as you can.

How to Socialize a New Kitten

Socializing a new kitten can be a very exciting experience, although it certainly takes a lot of time and patience. Use these steps to get your kitten used to new people, sensations, and sounds.

1. Get Them Used to Handling

Part of socializing is reducing fear around being picked up and handled. Getting your kitten used to these sensations will make life a lot easier when they're a cat (because they'll be less likely to put up a fight when trimming their nails and brushing their teeth), plus it'll strengthen the special bond you two have.

Make sure you touch your kitten's toes, gently feel around their ears, open their mouth, and rub their belly. Aim to do this for about five minutes every day, rewarding them with treats and praise as you do it.

2. Introduce New People

Getting your kitten used to new people is a very important part of socialization. That doesn't mean you'll want to throw a huge party, however. Have friends over one by one to avoid overwhelming your kitten. Ask your guest to sit on the floor or couch and allow the kitty to approach them.

Use positive reinforcement in the form of tasty treats, petting, and verbal praise to create a positive experience around every visitor. And take your kitten's lead. If they need a break, let them have some alone time. You'll want to keep visits short at first, then increase the length as your kitten becomes more confident.

Quick Tip

Young kittens who haven't had their full set of vaccines are susceptible to harmful viruses, so have all guests wash their hands before handling your kitten. If they have a sick cat at home, kindly ask that they don't come over until their pet is well to protect your kitty.

3. Expose Them to Sounds

Cat on robotic vacuum cleaner in house

Loud noises can easily spook a lot of cats, but you can reduce this fear by exposing them to sounds early on. Some examples are the vacuum, doorbell, blender, or TV.

First, keep the noise on the other side of a closed door while you stay with your kitten and reassure them. Offer treats and gentle words of encouragement. Do it for just a few minutes, a few times each week to get your kitten used to the noise.

4. Consider Exposure to Other Cats and Pets

A lot of foster parents and rescues will introduce their foster kittens to adult cats and dogs, but that's not always possible after you've brought a new kitten into your home. However, if your housemate has a cat or you have a friend with a puppy, you could consider exposing your kitten to these other critters.

Do it very slowly and gradually to keep your kitten from becoming spooked or overwhelmed. Begin interactions under the door, then allow them to meet from behind a baby gate, and eventually, if both pets are willing, they can meet face-to-face.

Socializing Feral Kittens

Feral kittens can be a lot more challenging to socialize because they're experiencing a lot of new and scary things all at once. In most cases, you're the first human they've ever interacted with! Before you can begin handling the kitten, you'll need to get them comfortable with your presence.

  • Create a safe, quiet space for the kitten.
  • Offer them food as a tool to create a positive association with you.
  • Speak to them calmly to get them used to your voice.
  • Avoid staring into their eyes, as this can be misinterpreted as aggression.
  • Try hand-feeding the kitten as a way to initiate touch. You can also gently pet the kitten while they're eating.

It will take a lot of patience to get a feral kitten comfortable with you, particularly if they are older. Most rescuers advise people not to try socializing feral kittens who are over 16 weeks old because most won't accept human interaction, but younger kittens can certainly be tamed. However, keep yourself safe by using protective equipment like gloves when interacting with feral kittens.

You Can Socialize Adult Cats, Too

Maybe you rescued an adult cat, and they're not feeling it yet. That's OK. The key is patience. You can socialize your adult cat just like you would a young kitten - old cats can learn new tricks! - with a few modifications. Begin by taking your rescue cat's situation into consideration.

  • The keyword is "Patience." Your adult rescue isn't used to their new situation yet. Go slow, at their pace.
  • Your rescue cat could have trauma. This can make the socialization process more difficult, but you will make progress over time.
  • Take your cat's personality into account. Some cats are just shy, so they may need more space and time to adapt.
  • Let them check out their environment first. Your home is totally new to your rescue. They need some room to adjust.

Once you've learned your new cat's personality a little bit, you can try a few socialization exercises.

  • Begin with trust building exercises. Let your new cat know they're safe around you. Feed them, talk softly to them, and let them know you love them.
  • Introduce touch. Now that your rescue cat is comfortable in your presence, sit near them and wait for them to initiate contact. Let them move closer to you over time. Once they seem comfortable, you can try touch.
  • When they're ready, try a low-key hangout. Bring over a friend, just like you would with a kitten, and let your cat approach on their terms. Then, treat and praise them.
  • Give your rescue cat an out. Make sure they have high perches to hang out on, away from new people. Also, keep a quiet area away from guests ready for them.
  • Tire them out before socialization. Play a few games with your cat, and make sure they're getting enough exercise. This can help a lot.
  • Let them set the pace. Don't try to force it. Let your older cat approach first and make contact.
  • Make everything positive. Any time your new rescue does something you like, treat them, and give them lots of praise and petting (if they're OK with being touched).
  • Consider a pheromone product. Using pheromone therapy may help a great deal to keep your cat calm while they acclimate.
  • Introduce other pets very slowly. To your existing pets, your new cat is the intruder. Do not socialize your rescue with other cats until you have bonded. Introduce them through a closed door at first. Go super slow here, and watch carefully.
  • Build a routine for them. Your new rescue will do best with a set schedule. That way, they know what to expect each day.
  • Keep socialization training short but sweet. Start with brief sessions, but do these frequently. This helps build up tolerance and makes it a regular part of their day.

This process can take a long time with an older rescue cat. The most important thing is, never scold your cat or punish them, especially during socialization work. That's a quick way to reverse your progress together. It's all about building trust. Be patient and keep it positive. Your rescue cat may never be the social butterfly you envisioned, but they will make tremendous strides learning to accept and live with you and your other pets.

Quick Tip

It can help to socialize your rescue in a small room at first, with limited hiding places. Just provide a cat tree for them to climb (this helps them feel safe) and a box for them to hide in, and initiate interactions with them.

Begin Socializing Kittens and Cats ASAP

Cats who weren't properly socialized as kittens can grow into skittish adults or have fears around loud noises or new people. It's best to start socializing your kitten as early as possible, although it's never too late to introduce a cat to new things. Just start slowly and take things one step at a time.

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4 Steps to Socialize Kittens & Create Confident, Friendly Cats