By Suzanne Hetts, PHD & Daniel Q.Estep,PHD
Kittens are nearly irresistible. Their innocent faces, big, bright eyes and playful antics add a sense of lightheartedness to any home. Sometimes its hard to remember that kittens are infants and that their behavior is governed by “doing what comes naturally.” This approach to life can translate into a host of behaviors, some endearing and some annoying.
Climbing drapes, unrolling rolls of toilet paper, sliding across the coffee table, knocking items off counters and tables, attacking hands and feet or testing potted plants for their potential as an elimination site are all the things kittens normally do. New kitten owners need to be prepared to provide acceptable outlets for normal kitten behaviors while finding ways to effectively and humanely discourage the same behaviors in places not to the owner’s liking. To accomplish these goals, it helps to have a working knowledge of the normal development of kitten behavior.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Behavior is always changing, even into adulthood. However, the most dramatic changes occur during the first year of life. While behavioral development in cats has not been as thoroughly studied as it has in dogs, most experts agree that the first year of life is divided into important periods and phases, the timing of which can vary among individuals by several days.
THE FIRST TWO WEEKS
At birth and shortly after, kittens are primarily focused on eating and staying warm. During the first 10 days of life, kittens are virtually helpless. Because they depend on their mothers for care, owners can best care for kittens by providing excellent care for the queen.
Several significant developmental changes occur between 10 and 14 days of age. The eyes and ears open, allowing kittens to become more responsive to their world. During this time, kittens can be exposed to mild environmental changes - such as gentle handling and new sounds - to help them more readily adapt to changes later on. Rapid physical development results in kittens being able to stand or walk, and the appearance of “baby teeth” sets the stage for the transition from nursing to eating solid food.
LET THE SOCIALIZING BEGIN
The period from 14 days to 14 weeks probably has the most significance for how well a kitten is going to adjust to life with humans, other cats and other animals. Kittens are usually acquired during this period, so new owners have a tremendous opportunity, as well as responsibilities, to facilitate the development of behavior that will result in the kitten reaching its full potential as a companion animal. Most of what we think of as typical kitten behaviors begin to appear during this time.
Social behavior patterns begin to develop and relationships are more easily formed now than at any other time in the cat’s life. The most sensitive period for the formation of social relationships is between 2 and 7 weeks. Because most kittens are still with their litters during this time adequate socialization of kittens becomes the shared responsibility of breeders, litter caregivers and owners.
Other developmental changes during this socialization period include the appearance of social play behavior and adult patterns of elimination and locomotion. By 3 weeks of age, kittens can eliminate on their own without stimulation by the queen, although she may continue to do so until the kittens are 6 weeks old. When the kittens are about 1 month old, they begin to dig or rake in any loose, particulate material they encounter. This is the first step in the adult pattern of burying the products of elimination. The first signs of predatory behavior also appear during this time, and weaning is completed by around 7 weeks.
For the kitten to mature into an adult that is friendly and comfortable around people, it must experience many pleasant and gentle interactions with a variety of people. Kittens that don’t receive this kind of exposure are more likely to always be wary, aloof and even threatening to unfamiliar people.
Similarly, because many adult cats share their lives with other companion animals, as kittens they should be given opportunities to socialize with other species in safe, pleasant, controlled surroundings. In case you are skeptical that a kitten can learn to get along with species that under natural conditions would be prey, consider the work of the psychologist Z. Y. Kuo. In the 1920’s, he demonstrated that if cats and rats were raised together from birth, they develop friendly relationships.
Socialization can also affect how easily an animal adapts to changes in its environment. Although dog owners are often encouraged to take their puppies places so they comfortable in a variety of settings, this aspect of socialization is often ignored for cat owners. This may be one reason most cats do not travel well and are often fearful in unfamiliar environments. Taking your kitten on brief car rides or to a trusted friend’s house to visit may result in a more adaptable adult cat.
ONWARD TOWARD ADULTHOOD
The socialization process does not come to a screeching halt at 7 or 14 weeks. It is important to encourage your young adult cat to meet visitors and to take your cat in the car from time to time other than to the veterinarian, groomer, or boarding kennel.
After 14 weeks, kitten behavior changes gradually into adult behavior, and kittens begin to look more like adult cats and lose some of their kittenish qualities. Locomotor skills such as running, jumping, and climbing become more refined, complete and efficient, peaking early in this phase. Body growth continues but at a slower rate.
The end of this period is marked by the onset of sexual maturity. The exact age at which this occurs varies with the health and breed of the cat but generally occurs between 6 and 12 months of age. Secondary sex characteristics appear such as thicker hair coats around males’ necks. Both sexes begin to display more territorial behaviors and behaviors associated with courtship and mating. This includes “yowling,” increased motivation to roam outdoors and urine marking. Because some kittens can be capable of mating at relatively young ages, kittens should be spayed or neutered at this time to prevent unplanned mating and to make them easier to live with.
PREVENTING BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS
Knowing when important behavior patterns first appear gives new kitten owners a chance to keep one step ahead in meeting their kittens’ behavioral needs. Many common behavioral problems can be readily prevented by getting off to the right start with the litter box, scratching post and toys.
Most kittens are inclined to eliminate in loose, particulate material beginning at 3 to 4 weeks of age. At this time, it’s important that they have access to this kind of litter material in an easily accessible litter box and that the litter be kept scrupulously clean. If possible, find out what kind of litter the kitten was accustomed to using before you brought it home and make the same, or similar, variety available. Scientific studies have shown that most cats prefer soft-textured, fine-grained litters such as clumping litters.
Keep in mind that kittens are infants that aren’t very good about planning ahead for their elimination needs. When they need to go, they may not be able to wait to find a single, out-of-the-way litter box. Confining your kitten to one room for the first several days after bringing it home allows it to become familiar with its new home a little bit at a time. Once the kitten has free access to the house, it may be helpful to provide several litter boxes, located in different areas, so one is always nearby. The boxes should be low enough to allow the kitten to get in and out easily.
Most kittens do not need to be taught what the litter box is or how to bury their waste. These behaviors develop normally even in orphaned kittens. Kittens will not connect being held in the box and having their paws moved back and forth with the natural act of elimination. In fact, this may be frightening, especially if the kitten hasn’t yet learned to trust its new owner. It is acceptable to show the kitten where the boxes are and to offer a treat or pet or play with the kitten in the vicinity so it feels comfortable in those locations.
A SCRATCHING OUTLET
Scratching behavior has a variety of functions for cats, the most important of which is marking territory. Other possible functions include claw maintenance, stretching muscles and tendons and play, especially in kittens. Because scratching is such an important behavior, it is not realistic to prevent a kitten from scratching. Instead, kittens need to be encouraged to scratch items meant for them and to leave other household items alone. Cats tend to develop preferred scratching locations to which they return repeatedly. Thus, it will be easier if from the first day as many objects with potential “scratch appeal” are made temporarily unappealing while acceptable scratching items are made available and attractive. The arms and backs of furniture can be covered with plastic, and drapes can be scented with deodorizing sprays with strong floral or citrus odors that cats find unpleasant. The kitten can also be confined away from tempting items when left unsupervised for short periods.
Just as kittens develop location and surface preferences for elimination based partially on early experience, they also have individual preferences for where and what they like to scratch. You may want to provide several different types of objects initially to see what the kitten prefers. Try at least one vertical object, such as a post, and one horizontal one, such as a cardboard scratching box. Place these objects where the kitten is most likely to be motivated to scratch, such as near its bed, near the front or back door or in an area where the kitten plays.Your kitten may regularly use more than one scratching object.
Scenting scratching objects with catnip or attaching a toy on a spring to the top of a post will encourage most cats to begin using them. Some kittens will be enticed to scratch by the sound of you scratching the object. We do not recommend taking the kitten to the scratching object and moving its legs up and down for the same reasons we don't advocate similar procedures for “litter training.”
COPING FROM DAWN ’TIL DUSK
Kittens are among the most playful creatures on earth. They can turn the smallest, most mundane item into a fascinating toy. Unfortunately, their play can often involve valuable knickknacks, your hands and feet, and potentially harmful objects such as string and rubber bands. Provide your new kitten with different types of cat toys to see which holds its interest. Try soft, catnip-scented ones, toys that dangle at the end of long flexible rods, toys that can be easily pushed around, boxes with cutouts on the top and toys inside or the plastic tracks with balls in them. Many household items make great toys: crumpled pieces of paper or the top from a milk carton could be just the toy for your kitten. And we’ve never met a cat that didn’t love paper bags or boxes.
Tempting though it may be, never play with your kitten with your hands and feet. This can be the start of a play-motivated aggression problem that escalates to your kitten ambushing you as you walk around the house.
After acquiring a new kitten, it may be necessary to kitten-proof the house for a while by removing breakable items from shelves and tables until the kitten’s insatiable need for play diminishes as it matures.
In general, a kitten’s needs are simple. One or more clean, easily accessible litter boxes,
appealing objects to scratch, a variety of safe, stimulating toys and lots of affection, petting and quality time should lead to a happy, well-adjusted life for your new addition.
YOUR KITTEN’S LAYETTE
Having the right items in place for your new kitten when you bring it home is just as important as having the proper layette for a new baby - maybe even more so given that a kitten’s habits become set during the first few weeks you have it.
Top on your list should be a proper litter box. A tiny, orphan kitten will need a small box with low sides - no more than 2 to 3 inches high. A kitten 6 weeks old or older can easily handle the height of a standard litter box. Extra-large or jumbo pans with high sides are best reserved for large adult cats. Whenever possible, continue to use the same litter your kitten was used to before you adopted it.
Your kitten needs its own food and water dishes. Ceramic or stoneware does not absorb stains or odors and helps keep water cool in summer. Stainless steel is durable and readily disinfected. A Persian kitten will need a flat eating surface because of its short, flat face. As with litter, feed your kitten the type of food it has been used to eating.
A washable bed is also handy. Many kittens seem to love the small round beds with high sides, which can be put directly into the washer and dryer. Small foam beds with removable covers are available in a variety of styles and colors. Some beds have hoods or are shaped like teepees. You may need to try a few locations before you find your kitten’s preferred sleeping spot.
With the seemingly endless variety of toys on the market, a few guidelines are helpful. Choose small toys the kitten can pick up and carry or toss in the air, but avoid small parts that could come off and be swallowed. Catnip is usually wasted on youngsters but is a hit with “teenagers.” Fur or fabric mice are popular, as are balls that can be batted or carried. The size of the toys can grow with the cat. Older kittens seem to enjoy taking out their aggression on bigger toys that they can hold with their front feet and kick with their back feet. Several companies make wands with toys or feathers at the end of a tether that will provide hours of fun and exercise for you and your kitten. Such interactive toys should only be used under direct supervision and then put safely away.
One or more scratching posts should help ensure that your kitten’s natural urge to scratch is not met by your couch. Be sure an attractive post is available the day you bring your kitten home. For tiny kittens, a simple, short post is adequate and safer than a tall one. The post should grow with the kitten; ideally, it should always be at least as tall as the kitten can stretch.
Styles are available to fit any budget, from a simple cardboard scratcher to an elaborate 6 foot tree. Many shapes and forms are available from specialty manufacturers. Posts covered with sisal rope are preferred rather than carpeting. The post will last longer and your kitten will learn it is not acceptable to scratch on carpeting.
Start getting your kitten used to nail clippers as soon as possible. You’ll need a comb and possibly a brush to begin your kitten’s grooming routine, especially if its long haired.
Collars are popular for kittens, although most are too large for really young kittens. A good choice is an adjustable collar. If you plan to leash train your cat, its a good idea to begin getting it used to the harness and leash at an early age. You’ll find a selection of leather and nylon products with or without jewels, to suit your kitten’s personality. An ID tag is also a good idea, even if you never plan to let your cat outdoors.
A cat carrier is the safest way to bring your new kitten home, and it will be useful for trips to the veterinarian and any time your cat needs to be transported. Cardboard carriers are inexpensive but not as durable as those made of molded plastic.
Fancy or simple, the right equipment will make life easier as your cute kitten grows
into a loving adult companion.
- Carolyn Osier