ABSTRACT: Rearing kittens involves striking a balance between meeting the behavioural needs of individuals and ensuring their physical health. It is well accepted that vaccination is an important part of preventive medicine, and socialisation and habituation can be considered as important parts of the process of 'vaccinating' against behavioural disorders.

Striking a balance between behavioural health and physical health continues through all stages of behavioural development and is not restricted to the traditional socialisation period. However, the early weeks of life provide an important window during which kittens are particularly receptive to the introduction of novelty and challenge.

Traditional view

Traditionally, socialisation and disease control have been viewed as conflicting objectives. Socialisation has been acknowledged as the process whereby behavioural problems are prevented, but has been viewed with suspicion because of a fear of putting kittens at greater risk of disease as a result of their broadened experiences.

In reality, social development and preparation for life in a domestic environment are important aspects of disease control and an alternative view is that socialisation and disease control are not mutually exclusive considerations. Indeed, adequate and appropriate socialisation is not only necessary from a behavioural perspective, but can also be important as an additional method of disease control.


Socialisation is a process whereby kittens learn to interact socially with their own species and the species around them. In a domestic environment, the three most important species are cats, people and dogs, although cats can also benefit from introduction to a wider range of domestic species. Successful introduction at an early age helps to create positive associations with the presence of these species and creates kittens that are able to adapt to a variety of social situations, within the restrictions of their natural ethology (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Kittens benefit from passive and positive interaction with other species including dogs and people

Risks of failing to socialise

Failure to socialise kittens with other cats can lead to problems of compatibility and integration with cats as adults. The behavioural consequences of this are numerous, but disease risk is also increased through a higher incidence of aggressive behaviour and consequent risk of infectious disease transfer.

Failure to socialise kittens with people and other domestic animals can lead to problems of stress and anxiety as the cat fails to integrate into a domestic setting (Figure 2). The stress and anxiety, in turn, predisposes cats to a variety of physical illnesses, including lower urinary tract disease, skin diseases and problems of immuno-suppression.

Figure 2: The early weeks of life are crucial in preparing kittens for life in a domestic environment

Challenges to natural behaviour

One of the main challenges for the domestic cat is learning how to interact successfully with people. Research has shown that there are specific factors which can influence a cat’s ability to live comfortably with human beings, including the style of handling for young kittens, the number of handlers that they are exposed to during the first weeks of life and the amount and frequency of handling that they receive.

In addition, factors such as genetic influences from the queen and the tom¬cat and the physical presence of the queen and littermates during socialisation experiences should also be considered.

The relationship with people can pose a significant challenge to the domestic cat, since people are low frequency, high- intensity interactors, while cats base their social interaction on high frequency and low intensity contact. Humans expect all greetings to involve physical contact while cats are happy to shout “hello” and keep moving!

Our instinct to pick cats up during greeting provides a particular challenge for many individuals because it prevents them from using their preferred defence strategy of escape and induces feelings of being restricted and confined. Some cats have a very low requirement for social contact and for these individuals human interaction can appear oppressive and restricting.

It is important, therefore, to consider the stresses that cat-to-human interaction may place on feline health and to ensure that adequate and appropriate socialisation with people is provided so that cats are suitably prepared for life in a human world (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Allowing the kitten to initiate interaction with minimal handling and restraint is ideal


Habituation is a process whereby kittens learn to filter out the non-threatening stimuli in the environment. Failure to provide adequate variation in terms of environmental stimulation can be a risk factor for developing health problems relating to anxiety, fear and even phobia.

If kittens are not exposed to sufficient variation in terms of visual, auditory and olfactory stimulation, this can lead to inappropriate emotional reactions to inanimate objects or to experiences within a domestic setting later in life. The behavioural consequences of this will vary from withdrawn behaviour to overt fear responses, and related behavioural problems, such as indoor urine marking.

Complex environments are, therefore, desirable for small kittens but it is important to avoid sensory overload at this time and it must be remembered to give the kitten time to assess new stimuli and develop appropriate behavioural reactions (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Kittens benefit from exposure to a complex domestic environment

Concept of emotions

Until relatively recently, the concept of emotions in animals was not widely accepted or discussed; but things are changing and the current basis of veterinary behavioural medicine is the consideration of the emotional response of our patients and the effect that this has on their outward behavioural expression.

One survey of cat owners in Southampton found fear-related behaviours, including anxiety related problems, were much higher in the population at large than in the clinical population of referred feline behaviour cases.2 It appeared that factors such as the impact of the feline behaviour on human lifestyle may be more important for owners when deciding whether to seek professional help than consideration of the emotio
nal state of the animal concerned.

Education is, therefore, needed to increase owner appreciation of the emotional reactions of their pets and also to increase attention to the rearing process as means of increasing emotional stability in domestic cats.

Timing of socialisation

The timing of the primary period of sensitivity to socialisation in kittens has large implications for breeders, since work by Karsh and Turner in the 1980s identified the socialisation period of kitten development as being between two and seven weeks of age.

This is a period that is often spent at the breeder’s premises and, since social development is most pronounced at this age, the benefits of social interaction with cats and other species will be most significant. Levels of fear are low and confidence to approach novel objects and situation is high, which results in maximised benefit from interaction with the physical as well as the social environment.

Boldness trait

In addition to increasing confidence through experience, it is important to remember that confidence is also affected by genetics and the presence or absence of the boldness trait has been shown to be significant in influencing the reactions of cats to novel situations.4 The role of the tom-cat in the inheritance of this trait is well documented, but the queen will also influence the emotional behaviour of her offspring. Careful selection of breeding stock is, therefore, an important factor in producing kittens that are suitable for life as a domestic pet.

Influences on success

The effectiveness of socialisation and habituation will also be affected by the underlying personality type of each individual cat and, whilst timid cats obviously benefit from socialisation, the overall effect in terms of interaction with people is shown to be significantly reduced when compared to non-timid individuals.

Multi-cat households and neighbourhoods

Socialisation with other cats is increasingly important as the popularity of multi-cat households increases and good levels of socialisation with other cats is certainly one factor in maximising feline harmony.

However, other considerations, such as respect for natural feline behaviour, are also important and it needs to be remembered that cats have a co-operative social system, which places more emphasis on the importance of territory and less on the availability of feline friends. The cat is a social creature and is certainly capable of establishing and maintaining social interaction but, unlike its canine and human companions, cats do not depend on social contact for their survival.

Cats naturally choose to live with relatives, and living with unrelated individuals can be stressful (Figure 5). Socialisation can help to minimise this stress and increase a cat’s acceptance of feline interaction, but environmental management which allows individual cats to control and acquire their own resources is also essential.

Figure 5: Cats naturally choose to live with relatives

Aggression to non-group members can be significant, although, in the main, cats will avoid physical confrontation by displaying distance – maintaining behaviours, such as scent marking, posturing and vocalisation. Alternatively, they will act to avoid the threat by increasing passive behavioural responses, such as hiding and elevation and it is these individuals who often go unnoticed despite experiencing very significant levels of social stress.

Prior to vaccination, cat-to-cat interaction will be limited to mother and littermates and single kittens may need special consideration, since play with siblings is important in developing successful communication with other cats. Inter-cat tension within households can be a significant risk factor, not only for physical injury from confrontation, but also from increased susceptibility to disease as a result of chronic social stress.


The maintenance of physical health and, in particular, the control of infectious diseases are major concerns in a feline context. As a result, the demands of social development and disease control can sometimes appear to be at loggerheads. Minimising interaction between kittens and between kittens and people may, therefore, be seen as an appropriate course of action in order to limit the spread of infectious diseases.

However, infectious disease may be more of a threat to cats that are stressed, and limiting early socialisation with both cats and people may affect a kitten’s vulnerability in terms of infectious disease as an adult. In addition, it can increase their susceptibility to emotional disorders which in turn may make them more vulnerable – not only to behavioural disorders but also to other forms of physical disease.5 Striking a balance between socialisation and disease control is thus vitally important if the cat is to live successfully in a domestic setting. 



Sarah qualified as a vet from Bristol University and spent four years in mixed general practice before setting up a behaviour medicine referral practice in 1992. She is an honorary lecturer in small animal behavioural medicine at Liverpool University Veterinary school and a Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist under the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour accreditation scheme.

Sarah was an external tutor on the Postgraduate Diploma/MSc course in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling at Southampton University from the inception of the course until 2008. She is immediate past president of the European Society for Veterinary Clinical Ethology and, in 2002, became a Founding Diplomate of the European College of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine – Companion Animals, serving as its president from 2002 to 2008.


1.   KARSH, E. B. (1983) The effects of early handling on the development of social bonds between cats and people. In Katcher, A. H. & Beck, A. M.(Eds.). New Perspectives on our Lives with Companion Animals, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, pp 22-28.

2.   BRADSHAW, J. W. S., CASEY, R. A. and MacDONALD, J. M. (2000) The occurrence of unwanted behaviour in the pet cat population Proceedings of the Companion Animal Behaviour Therapy Study Group Study Day, Birmingham, pp 41-42.

3.   KARSH, E. B. and TURNER, D. C. (1988). The human-cat relationship. In Turner, D. C. & Bateson, P. (Eds.). The Domestic Cat: the biology of its behaviour, 1st edn., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 159-177

4.   McCUNE, S. (1995) The impact of paternity and early socialisation on the development of cats behaviour to people and novel objects. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 45: 109-124.

5.   BUFFI
NGTON, C. A. T., CHEW, D. J. and WOODWORTH, B. E. (1999) Feline Interstitial Cystitis. J. American Veterinary Medical Association 21 5: 682-687

Veterinary Nursing Journal • VOL 25 • No7 • July 2010 •