Kitten Caboodle: Play Dates Are Fun and Educational

Nothing is sweeter than an 8-week-old kitten. Those tiny paw pads, curious eyes, and that wiggly body practicing “big cat” pounces. Adorbs, right? Adding a kitten to your family is easy in this charming, playful, and easy-care stage.

Alas, within a few months, cute kittens become adolescents, with the potential for behavioral issues caused by stress, anxiety, and arousal. Accompanying unwanted behaviors include eliminating outside the litter box (not the good kind of thinking outside the box), aggression, and scratching.

But what if when they were kittens, we could get them started off on the right paw? What if each kitten came with a “how-to” manual?  Would this help us see fewer behavioral concerns in the future while also keeping these feline family members in our homes long term?  The answer is yes!

School Days

“Kitten Kindy,” or kitten kindergarten, was brought to the forefront by veterinary behaviorist Kersti Seksel, VBSc (Hons), MRCVS, MA (Hons), FACVSc, DACVB, DECAWBM, of Australia.  Most kitten kindergarten classes are taught by veterinary technicians or animal trainers. They are typically conducted as a 2- to 4-week course or may be presented in a “party-” like fashion once every few weeks.

It’s known that kittens handled by humans at an early age are much easier to handle as adult cats.  With these courses, we can help kittens grow into happy adults and become more social members of our families. The basic goals of Kitten Kindergarten are as follows:

  • Socialize kittens in the environment and with different sounds
  • Educate owners about normal feline behavior
  • Teach owners how to interact and play with their kittens
  • Teach kittens to accept handling procedures
  • Identify problem behaviors while providing up-to-date, humane, and scientific advice
  • Educate owners on all aspects of kitten development, pet care, and living with a cat in the family

The kitten socialization period is 2 to 7 weeks of age, sometimes continuing to 10 weeks of age.  The socialization period is when kittens begin to become less dependent on their mother for survival and have increased interaction with their littermates and the environment.  This is the most important sensitive period in feline development and can help prepare kittens to live safely and comfortably in human households. Positive social experiences with other species such as dogs and cats can similarly be hugely beneficial to creating a behaviorally healthy feline.

All Kittens Benefit

Unfortunately, most kittens are not placed into homes until this developmental period is over. Is a kitten kindergarten class still appropriate for a 12-week-old kitten? Absolutely! The socialization window does not slam shut. It slowly closes so these classes can be beneficial for kittens up to 14 weeks of age. Even if you have an older kitten who is 5 to 6 months old, coming to these courses will still be beneficial to feline pet parents (even if they come without their kitten). Kitten kindergarten is primarily for the pet owner! If we can be prepared with appropriate tools and education, we can create a strong bond with our new furry family member.

Topics discussed in these classes are basic litter box care, carrier training, handling protocols, and appropriate outlets for play. Cats also love mental stimulation! Some kitten kindergartens offer a “how to” with clicker training and review different forms of enrichment to keep your kitten mentally stimulated for the long haul.

Finding a kitten kindergarten course in your area can be vital to creating a happy and healthy feline family member. These courses are slowly starting to emerge more frequently and are being recommended by veterinary behavior professionals. Check with your veterinarian, positive reinforcement trainers, and shelters to see if they are aware of any programs in your area. The following books may also be helpful:

  • The Trainable Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis
  • Decoding the Cat by The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
  • Clicker Training for Cats by Karen Pryor

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

Rachel Lees, an Elite Fear Free Certified Professional, is a veterinary technician specialist in behavior, a KPA certified training partner, and lead veterinary behavior technician at The Behavior Clinic in Olmsted Falls, Ohio. She loves helping people create and maintain a strong human-animal bond.