Fearless Kittens: Are They Made Or Born?

Stories abound about kittens who are adopted into new homes, then promptly disappear for days at a time, coming out only at night to eat and use the litter box. It doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s how to improve your chances of bringing home a confident, outgoing kitten who will be comfortable in any home or situation.

We talked to Maartje Schoenmaker, who has bred Russian Blues in the Netherlands for 13 years. Her advice is good whether you’re purchasing a pedigreed kitten from a responsible breeder or adopting one raised in a shelter or foster home or from your next-door neighbor who took in a pregnant stray.

Kittens in Schoenmaker’s Alyona Cattery are raised underfoot. They experience all the sights and sounds of a normal home environment: people, music, TV, the vacuum, the sound of pots and pans, the lavatory flushing, and other pets (under supervision).

“Socialization starts from the moment the kittens are born, even while their world only consists of tasting, feeling, and smelling because their ears and eyes haven’t opened yet,” she says. “Kittens who are handled daily from birth will very quickly, often within a day or two, stop their instinctive hisses to being touched and kissed by this strange-smelling, bald human.”

Ask about such exposure when interviewing a breeder, shelter employee or foster caretaker. Foster parents are often key players in raising shelter kittens. They help ensure that young kittens are exposed to everything needed to make them fearless. When you visit before adopting or purchasing, look for a kitty-friendly environment with scratchers, toys, dishes, and litter boxes. Keep in mind that some breeders confine cats to separate rooms without giving them run of the house, which can affect how well kittens are socialized. Ask how they ensure that kittens are exposed to home life and handling.

Easygoing mother cats who are social with people raise the most social kittens. It’s also helpful if you can meet the father, since studies have shown that male cats have a huge impact on their kittens’ temperaments, even if they don’t interact with them.

If you’re buying a pedigreed kitten, it’s important to establish a relationship with the breeder well before taking the kitten home. Let the breeder know what you’re looking for as far as personality. Typically, breeders will not place kittens before the age of 16 weeks, which ensures that kittens are properly socialized, immunized, and sometimes even spayed or neutered. By that age, the personality of the kitten is established and the breeder should be able to help you select the kitten who’s right for you and your family.

Observing Kittens

Schoenmaker says, “Well-socialized kittens will not go off into hiding when visitors come, and when awake and fed should come to investigate you, even if they soon charge off into a wild game of tag with their litter mates again.” They should be comfortable with being picked up and held, but may run off if they’re in the middle of a game. She recommends asking the breeder to describe the nature of the kittens who aren’t actively interacting with you during your visit: is that behavior typical of them or are they just sleepy or distracted?

“If the kitten is lucky enough to have littermates, the interaction with them will be very telling for their temperament,” Schoenmaker says. “Outgoing kittens are front and center when chasing after a toy and will leave the wallflowers behind. The quieter kittens will await their turn until the tough ones are tired out.”

She recommends bringing a fishing pole toy and playing with the babies. “The absolutely fearless ones will be with you at the drop of a hat,” she says.

The added benefit of playing with the kittens is that they will tire out, then look for places to sleep. “Which ones pick a lap or a resting spot close to a person and which ones move far away will be telling for their level of trust in their own human and strangers. If it is possible, try to have multiple visits to allow all kittens a chance to shine for you and not just the one who happens to be awake and in a calm mood,” Schoenmaker says.

All of this obviously works for Schoenmaker. She says when visitors came to her home recently, kittens were clambering all over them. Now those are fear-free kittens!

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT