Socialization in Cats – How Much is Enough?

Socialization in cats continues until they are 3-4 years old. However, they learn best when they are younger, ideally at 2-7 weeks of age.

How much socialization does a cat need?

Early Adoption…

A kitten’s instruction in the language of Cat begins with his mother, aunts, and litter mates in the cat colony. Once weaned, he continues his studies with other juveniles and adults in the colony. When we adopt a kitten at 8 weeks or so, we interrupt socialization in cats.

If the kitten joins a home with friendly, well-socialized cats, she will be able to learn the nuances of cat social behavior. She should thrive and prosper.

Adoption into a household of where the cats are not socialized or where our kitten is an only cat may result in a confused and fearful kitten.

Orphan Kittens…

These are kittens where the mother cat is absent due to death or abandoning her kittens. Kindly human volunteers will undertake the raising of these kittens by hand, bottle feeding them, cleaning them, weaning them, providing play and social opportunity.

Without interaction with other cats, an orphan kitten will grow up like a “feral child” and may never be able to respond to social cues from other cats. Aggression towards humans is common among hand-reared kittens.


The Tarzan syndrome
Tarzan, a fictional character from the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, is a human child raised by apes after the deaths of his parents when he is an infant. He miraculously learns to speak and briefly joins society as a young adult.

Accounts of “feral children “are not science fiction like Tarzan. These children are often fighting and competing for food with the animals they join. The outcome of these cases depends on when (at what age) the children are abandoned to survive on their own and when they are brought back to society. Many of these feral children may not ever be able to speak and socialize normally with other people

  • Keep hand reared kittens with their litter mates for socialization. The kittens can learn from each – if one kitten bites another, he will get bitten back. He will learn boundaries this way.
  • If you are planning on an early adoption (kitten is less than 6 months old), consider adopting two kittens, preferably members of the same litter or kittens of a similar age.
  • It can be risky to introduce small kittens (less than 16 weeks) to adult cats. Adult cats who have no experience of kittens will not know how to deal with them.

If you opt to introduce kittens to older cats, SUPERVISE AT ALL TIMES. Make sure your older cat is vaccinated for upper respiratory diseases and feline leukemia (if he goes outdoors). Gradual introduction is still recommended. A pair of kittens may still be your best bet in this situation and give you time to introduce all the cats at their own pace.

Not enough socialization…

Bonded cats often sleep together.

After the euthanasia of their male cat, owners of a female cat decided to adopt a new cat. They were smitten by two 10 month old male cats they found at a rescue for dogs. The two cats were litter mates and had been at the rescue since birth. 

During several months of keeping the young cats separate from the older female cat, gradual introductions, pheromone therapy and time-sharing, the larger of the two young cats repeatedly attacked the female cat.

What happened?

  • The young cats were not able to read the social cues  (body language, olfactory cues) of the older cat. Their time at the dog rescue did not include socialization with cats other than their litter mates.
  • The larger male kitten was fascinated with the older cat but also fearful of her.  He attacked what scared him.

A Happy Ending

The “aggressive” cat has since been re-homed as single cat to another household. He is affectionate to his human family and doing well. The remaining male cat has started to bond with the older female.

What makes a friendly cat?  A good pet cat?


A Maine Coon Cat – a long-haired breed
  • Nature is the genetic makeup of  our cat.
  • studies show that kittens of friendly fathers are more friendly
  • there are breeds of cats known for their disposition

TICA: Meet Our Fabulous Felines


  • Environment
  • Experience
  • Diet
  • Some of the things that can affect a kitten’s development.


Nurture is “In Addition to Genetics”

The science of epigenetics studies modifications to our DNA that don’t change the DNA sequence. The epigenome refers to chemical compounds that are attached to your DNA. Exposure to pollutants, what you eat and stress are some things that can result in certain compounds attaching to your DNA and turning particular genes on or off. These changes remain as cells divide and may pass from generation to generation.

What makes a friendly cat? A good pet cat?

Nurture and the “Sensitive Period”


  • Our kitten learns most efficiently during the “sensitive period”,
  •  “Sensitive Period”: 2-7 weeks of age
  • Rapid growth of neural cells makes learning easier.
  • The learning that happens during the “sensitive period” prepares our kitten for the social and physical environment she is born into.



End of the Sensitive Period

At 7 weeks, this “golden time” of learning closes – the fear reaction becomes established in our kitten. She will become more cautious and careful from now on. Caution and wariness are crucial to her development as a solitary hunter. She will continue to learn and develop socially but will not be as open to new experiences.

Human contact

Kittens who are handled kindly and gently by a variety of humans during the “sensitive period” quickly learn to accept people and enjoy being with them. The positively socialized kitten  generalizes what he learns about individual people to people in general.

Rough, insensitive handling can make our kitten aggressive and fearful of people for life.


Exposure to Human households

Kittens exposed to the environment in human homes during the “sensitive period” adapt quickly to electronic devices and appliances, other animals, and living indoors. They learn that the noise of the vacuum cleaner, although unpleasant, is not life threatening.



Kittens are more willing to try new foods at this time, although they follow their mother’s lead (if she is there) in choosing what to eat. Good nutrition helps our kitten develop.


The Feral Cat…

A feral adult cat is not accustomed to human handling or human environments. Human beings appear large, intimidating and potentially predatory to a cat who is not familiar with them; our behavior must also seem unpredictable.

The feral cat views each person/unfamiliar situation as potentially dangerous – he does not have an established frame of reference for people and their environment.

Feral cats do not have what makes a friendly cat;  a good pet cat.

These cats may become accustomed to individual humans in a particular environment. They remain leery of humans in general and may react aggressively toward them due to fear. The same level of learning that is achieved from being introduced to humans and their homes during the “sensitive period” is difficult to make happen during a cat’s adult life. Successful integration takes longer, and can be very stressful for the cat in question.

That friendly stray who wanders into your back yard for snacks has had some positive experiences with people. A truly feral cat lives in the shadows, avoiding human company.

Kittens exposed to people, human households, other animals (cats, dogs, etc) when they are 2-7 weeks old are generally more flexible in dealing with new situations. These cats are generally accepting of people and make better pets. When choosing a cat for a pet, try to find out as much as you can about what she may have experienced during her “golden time” of learning.

The Cat Friendly Home: Maintain the Colony Scent

Odors not only tell cats about their world ; they also carry messages from other cats.

Free-roaming cats live in colonies if there is enough food in the neighborhood. Each colony has its own signature scent. Members of the colony identify each other by this scent. This colony scent also marks the core territory of the colony, where the members feel safe, can eat, rest and play.

Our homes are our cat’s territory; we are members of our cat’s colony. Our homes have the colony scent that makes our cats feel safe and secure.

How do we maintain the colony scent in our homes?

Marley marks the corner wall at the top of the stairs.


Scratching post near the litter box.

Cats deposit pheromones  and signature scents using glands on their faces. You may see your cat rubbing the corner of a wall or furniture; you may also see him rub the same place again later the next day – he is marking the area as safe and familiar.

Pheromones and communication

Placing scratching posts around your home at windows, doors, and near where your kitty sleeps also provides boundary marking. Glands in kitty’s feet release pheromones and odors when she scratches which are deposited on the scratching posts.

Scratching Basics

Litter boxes are also part of the kitty network – urine and feces can carry messages and identify individual cats within the house.

Litter Box Basics

Disturbances in the Scent…

Marley marks the corner wall at the top of the stairs.
A well marked wall.


  • Avoid using strong smelling disinfectant or scented cleaners.
  • Some of the disinfectant cleaners linger on surfaces for a long time after you have used them for cleaning. Cats can be notorious counter surfers and they lick their paws.
  • Also avoid cleaners with essential oils – most essential oils are toxic to cats.
  • Visit the Environmental Working Group site to learn more about the cleaners you’re using.

Environmental Working Group

“Whisker Walls”

It is best to leave those “whisker walls” where the kitties rub their cheeks untouched for as long as you can. If they are just too unsightly, try unscented castile soap (made out of plant sources) followed with a rinse. After cleaning, spray with Feliway Classic (Comfort Zone Calming)


Litter Boxes

Cleaning the litter tray can be done with mild cleaners, for example, dishwashing soap. If you do use bleach, make sure to dilute it and rinse the tray thoroughly. The CDC recommends diluting 1/3 cup unscented household bleach with 1 gallon of water for cleaning surfaces.

Avoid cleaning all the litter boxes at once – stagger the cleanings. Scooping daily if you use clumping litter, will allow you to empty and clean the litter box ever 2-4 weeks.

Hydrogen peroxide (3%) has good disinfecting properties and breaks down into just oxygen and water.

  1. Start with a box that has had all solid waste and old litter removed.
  2. Spray a fine coating of hydrogen peroxide on the inside of the box. Allow it to sit for 15 minutes.
  3. Scrub the inside thoroughly. Completely rinse the hydrogen peroxide out and dry the litter box before replacing the litter.

The Bark Space

Veterinary visits and hospitalization

When your cat goes to the vet, make sure that some of her familiar bedding goes with her for reassurance. If you have other cats, take along some other bedding the other cats sleep on in a plastic bag for the trip home. Ask that it be put in your cat’s carrier before picking her up. This helps maintain the colony scent when your cat is on her way home.

My youngest cat formerly was a street cat. He will be aggressive with the older cats returning from a day at the vet if we do not include some of his bedding for his roommate to come home with. I also make sure that the Feliway multi-cat diffusers are working in the common areas.

Managing new smells at the front door…

  • Place footwear and shopping bags at the door when you return home – allow the cats to examine these items before moving them further into the house
  • Wash your hands before greeting your cat or cats
  • Change your clothing if you have been in contact with strange cats and dogs

Pheromones help maintain the colony scent…

  • Feliway Classic (ComfortZone Calming) diffusers help the cats feel safe in their sleeping and litter areas
  • Multicat diffusers keep harmony in the common areas.
  • Wipe down new items with a cloth sprayed with the Classic or Calming  pheromone.

The Cat Friendly Home: Predictable and Positive Interactions Between Cats and Humans

What is the predictable and positive way to greet a cat?

What makes cat-human interactions predictable and positive?

Greet your cat in his language…

When there is sufficient food in an area, free-roaming cats will often live in colonies. Cat colonies are groups of related cats. The core of the colony is the mother cat, her kittens, her sisters and their kittens.

Each cat colony has a scent…

Cats live in a landscape of odors – their sense of smell is 1000 x more sensitive than ours and they communicate by scent. The cat colony has its own scent – each member has this scent.


Scent identifies members…

 Colony members often greet each other by touching noses, confirming the “colony” scent.

They also groom each other (allo-grooming) mostly on the head and rub against each other (allo-rubbing). All of these actions exchange scent, confirming the “colony odor” and membership in the colony.

You are part of your cat’s “colony” and share the “colony” scent, marking you as a colony member. You also have your “signature scent”, that identifies you as an individual to your cat. Greet your cat by letting her smell you and confirm that you belong to the colony.

Your cat may be a highly skilled hunter but he is also a small animal who is prey for larger carnivores such as dogs and coyotes. We are much larger than he is and don’t want to scare him and make him feel like prey. If you get on your cat’s level, you will seem smaller and not as threatening.

Meet and Greet – A Predictable and Positive Hello




Athena accepts a greeting by rubbing her face against my hand

Get on your cat’s level by bending down or by interacting with her on a higher surface. Extend a hand or a finger and allow her to smell you.

  •  If she wishes to continue the interaction, she will rub against your hand (allo-rub).
  • Handle your cat on her head at first. This mimics the “allo-grooming” of friendly cats, where they groom each others’ heads.
  • A friendly or bonded kitty may allow her back to be stroked after accepting a head rub – like the “allo-rubbing” of colony cats.
  • Your colony membership is up to date!

If you cat does not lean into your hand or rub your hand on greeting, save the petting session for later – like us, there are times your cat does not want to be touched.

Other Predictable and Positive Interactions between cats and humans…

  • grooming, treat time or play time – Make this POSITIVE – choose something your cat enjoys
  • have a session the same time each day, say, after dinner or before bedtime
  • cats are in tune to the household rituals that mark the passing of the day more than the time on the clock.
  • this “schedule” allows you to communicate with your cat. He will be looking for the clues that tell him that treat time is around the corner – he may show up and solicit the interaction with a chirrup or meow.
Athena sniffs her comb prior to being groomed.














Have more than one cat?  Make sure each kitty gets some premium time!

These activities will strengthen the owner-pet bond. This time can also be used to train behaviors that are beneficial to both owner and cat – for example, conditioning your cat to accept kibble in treats to reduce stress when she needs oral medication.

Do you ever wonder why cats like us?

People are the ultimate resource – we provide food, shelter, play and safety.
To our cats , we may seem to be large, clumsy and somewhat unpredictable cats.
Let’s eliminate the unpredictability by greeting our cats in their language and providing positive interactions that they can predict.