Here’s how to socialize a kitten (and why it’s so important)

Woman holding up a kitten and smiling while it looks at the camera
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you’ve just welcomed a new fur friend into your family, you may be wondering how to socialize a kitten — and perhaps, why it’s so important. 

Often we can get so excited about adopting a kitten that we spend all of our time shopping for the best kitten food, toys and other supplies that we may not initially give socialization much thought. However, this process is incredibly important when it comes to ensuring you end up with a friendly and adaptable cat.

Socialization is a crucial step in your kitten’s development and begins long before they leave their mom. But while a lot of this process will occur while they’re with their littermates, you’ll also have an important role to play in helping your kitty learn how to interact appropriately with other cats and humans and prevent some of the most common kitten behavior problems

While figuring out how to socialize a kitten may feel daunting at first, rest assured the process isn’t as complicated as it might seem. To help you and your feline friend get off on the right footing, we spoke to vet Dr. Rebecca MacMillan to get her expert advice on the best way to go about socializing your kitten with both people and other cats. Here’s what she had to say…

Dr. Rebecca MacMillan
Dr. Rebecca MacMillan

Dr. Rebecca MacMillan is a companion animal vet with over 13 years of experience treating and looking after pets. She graduated from the UK Royal Veterinary college in 2009, and has worked in several practices over the years. Rebecca is also an experienced writer, using her veterinary background to offer expert opinion and advice. 

When to socialize kittens

"Kittens are most open to socialization at two to seven weeks of age, so it is important to pick a breeder or rescue center that understands this," explains MacMillan. "Very young kittens should be gently exposed to a variety of people, animals, sounds, and smells in their first home environment. That will give you the best foundation to build on. 

Most owners don’t collect their kittens until eight weeks onwards, but you can continue working on their socialization, by keeping any new experiences calm and positive. The more good experiences a kitten has with something at a young age the more likely they are to be comfortable with it in the future."

Make sure you go and see a kitten in its home before agreeing to buy or adopt. If you find that the kitten runs up to you and craves attention, there’s a good chance that it has already been well socialized and will be a happy cat. If however they exhibit shyness and are fearful, you might have a steeper learning curve ahead of you both. 

Alongside continuing to socialize your kitten after you've brought them home, these five essential kitten training tips is a great idea way of helping your kitty master the skills and behaviors they need to thrive.

How to socialize a kitten with humans

Man and kitten

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Happy kittens tend to seek affection from humans which come to visit them in a familiar environment, but remember it can be overwhelming for new kittens as soon as they enter a new home - so don’t be surprised if they revert to being a bit shy at first. 

"When interacting with a new kitten it is important to let them come to you," says MacMillan. "This means fighting the urge to rush in and cuddle them! Sit calmly in the same room as your kitten and allow them to approach you. You could encourage this with some treats, food, or toys. If your kitten seems happy, start by gently stroking them and see how they respond. If at any point your kitten seems scared, then give them some space until they appear calmer again. 

Children should always be supervised around kittens. They are less good at reading body language and are more likely to get scratched, due to overexcitement or rough handling. Any new person who meets the kitten should take the same slow approach the first few times to gain their trust."

It’s important to give your new cat the time and space they need to progress from being a kitten up to adulthood, by not rushing the socialization process. Play close attention to how your cat behaves, and if you think you’re introducing too much too soon, scale your efforts back. 

How to socialize a kitten with other cats

"The first thing to remember is that cats are very territorial animals, and many are also solitary, meaning they are quite happy in their own company. It could take time for any existing cats in the household to get used to a kitten, so this introduction should be done slowly," MacMillan explains.

"Your new kitten should be kept confined in one area of the house to begin with. Only allow it to explore the rest of the house while your other cat is out or shut away in another room. This will allow your kitten to smell your other cat in its surroundings and vice versa. You could also allow them to sniff blankets that have been gently rubbed on the other cat. 

"The next step is to introduce them with a physical barrier in place, like a glass door, before moving onto a mesh barrier or baby gate that they can smell each other through," says MacMillan. "Once they have done lots of interactions like this you can try a face-to-face one. Just make sure that both the cat and the kitten have space to run away if they need to."

"Living and socializing with other cats will go much better if each cat (and kitten) always has their own set of food/water bowls, bed, and litter tray to reduce competition for resources. Using calming appeasing pheromone products can also help reduce stress in cats making introductions easier."

Make sure to read our guide on how to introduce a new kitten to a cat for more detailed information on this kind of socialization. 

How to socialize a scared kitten

Some cats are naturally more fearful than others, while if you've rescued a kitten that hasn’t been properly socialized, you might be starting with a scared kitten. Don’t panic, there’s still plenty you can do to help transform your scaredy cat into a happy and loving adult. 

"Scared kittens will need a bit of extra time and patience," says MacMillan. "Sometimes being scared is due to a lack of socialization in those very early weeks but it could also just be their personality type. Either way, you can still do all the normal kitten socialization steps but just allow for everything to take a bit longer. 

You can also help your scared kitten by making sure they have plenty of hiding places where they won’t be disturbed, and by ensuring they are not overwhelmed by lots of visitors when they are settling in. Never try and force a scared kitten to do anything it is not comfortable with as this could make them even more fearful in the long run."

The key thing here is to remain calm and show a huge amount of patience. Don’t expect a transformation quickly, and work at the pace your cat seems to be comfortable with. 

Finding training your fur baby a challenge? We share our tips for how to fix the most common kitten behavior problems

Amy Davies

Amy Davies is a freelance writer and photographer with over 15 years experience. She has a degree in journalism from Cardiff University and has written about a huge variety of topics over the years. These days she mostly specialises in technology and pets, writing across a number of different titles including TechRadar, Stuff, Expert Reviews, T3, Digital Camera World, and of course PetsRadar. She lives in Cardiff with her dog, Lola, a rescue miniature dachshund.