Genetics, environment and early socialization all play a role in how your kitten responds to people
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
You have a new kitten, and you want her to grow up to be a friendly cat. You can take some steps to help that occur, but early environment and socialization experiences play a major role in how kittens respond to humans. Personality is also baked into their genes.
The primary kitten socialization period takes place between the ages of 2 weeks and 9 weeks. Those aren’t finite boundaries, says behavior specialist Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, one of the editors of the book “Decoding Your Cat,” but the more positive experiences kittens have with humans and their environment during those seven weeks can make a difference in how they interact with people as adults.
Genetics is another factor. Some kittens are just naturally more easygoing or more people-oriented, even if they didn’t have an ideal socialization experience.
“That’s why when you have feral kittens and you find them at 3 or 4 months, some of them are genetically easygoing and will learn to be with some people, and some of them are not,” Dr. Horwitz says. “They will never be cuddle kitties. They may live around the house and eat (indoors) and use the litter box, but they’re not particularly friendly.”
Horwitz herself has two Devon rex cats from the same litter. She brought home one at 8 weeks and one at 11 weeks. They are both friendly, but because they had different environments and experiences between the ages of 8 and 11 weeks, they respond differently to certain things. Both are relaxed about being picked up or held by Horwitz’s seven grandchildren, but one is more likely than the other to run away from strange things. And while Nikki, the first kitten, doesn’t mind being petted or picked up, she doesn’t seek it out the way Isabella does.
“Isabella’s philosophy is, ‘Any human body is a warm place to nap, and I’m getting on it,’” Horwitz says. It’s like people, she adds. “Some people like to be hugged, and some people don’t.”
Depending on a kitten’s birth environment, bringing one home at an earlier age can be beneficial as far as acclimating little cats to human handling and normal household sights and sounds, especially if they haven’t encountered those things from the first. That can be true for the kitten from the frazzled next-door neighbor who is raising a litter in the garage, or one from a shelter without a foster-care program (bit.ly/3pq0XCb) that gives kittens an early in-home experience with plenty of handling.
“You’ll get individual variation, but the older they are when you take them into the house, on average, the more difficult it will be to get them used to people,” Horwitz says.
But breeders may prefer to keep kittens longer -- until they are 12 to 16 weeks old, or even a little older. That can have health-related advantages. Norwegian forest cat breeder Lorraine Shelton says her queens (mother cats) often nurse their kittens up to and beyond 16 weeks of age.
“I understand how much their new families want to experience those adorable baby antics, but making sure my kittens have completed the most critical period of their immunological development -- the point at which maternally derived antibodies decline and their own immune systems start to function -- is important before I send them off into the world.”
No matter at what age you bring your kitten home, continuing to provide positive experiences, even after they’re 9 weeks old, can only increase your chances of having a cat who is friendly and relaxed in many different situations, including car travel and veterinary visits. Look for a veterinarian or practice certified as Cat Friendly or Fear Free or that uses low-stress handling techniques. Some practices offer “kitten parties” (bit.ly/3cfUWUZ), which can be a fun way to help kittens gain confidence and learn new things.
Dogs lag for
Q: My dog doesn’t enjoy going for walks. What can I do to get him up and at ‘em?
A: One of the classic reasons for getting a dog is to have a walking buddy, so it can be worrisome or frustrating when yours doesn’t want to participate. Let’s look at some of the reasons your dog might be reluctant to shake a leg when you want to go around the block.
If he’s young, or simply out of shape, your walk might be too much for him. Depending on the breed, young dogs don’t complete their musculoskeletal growth until they’re 14 to 24 months old. Too much running, jumping or walking on hard surfaces can leave them feeling tired or sore. Adult dogs who aren’t conditioned might feel the same way if they aren’t used to the distance, speed or amount of time you’re walking. Maybe you’re working on a New Year’s resolution to walk every day or faster or longer. Both you and your dog need to build up to that.
Overweight dogs might also have trouble with walks. The surplus pounds they’re carrying put painful pressure on their joints.
If your dog is limping, check him over to make sure there’s not a sticker or grass awn in his paw. He might have a broken nail or an injury from jumping on or off the sofa. If he’s still limping after a day of rest, your veterinarian should see him to check for orthopedic conditions or injuries. Certain tick-borne diseases can cause limping as well.
Finally, dogs who are reluctant to walk for no apparent reason, especially if they stop frequently or insistently, may have a condition such as congestive heart failure or bone cancer.
Any time your dog doesn’t want to walk, there’s a reason. Work with your veterinarian to find it. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
set world record
-- Two border collies named Wish and Halo, trained by owner Emily Larlham of El Cajon, California, performed 28 tricks in a minute to earn a Guinness World Records title. Wish, Halo and Larlham, who uses positive reinforcement techniques, completed the feat on Dec. 22 and submitted it to Guinness for the win. Tricks included look left and look right, twirl, crawl (during which Wish broke the record for fastest five-meter crawl by a dog), sit, wave, sit pretty, side step, catch, heel, circle left, circle right and high five, to name just a few. Cats, don’t feel left out. A cat named Alexis, trained by owner Anika Moritz of Austria, performed 26 tricks in a minute last June to earn the world record for cats.
-- A smart collar for dogs was one of the more intriguing gadgets at the all-digital 2021 Consumer Electronics Show last month. The colorful Petpuls collar has a device that uses artificial intelligence and voice recognition technology to detect, track and analyze five emotional states in dogs: happiness, anxiety, anger, sadness and relaxation. An accelerometer measures activity throughout the day as well as sleep time. The device pairs to an iOS or Android app through Wi-Fi, providing a readout of how your dog feels. An algorithm uses accumulated voice data from your dog to learn his mood and become more accurate in predicting emotions. Can you ever really know how accurate it is? Not yet, but it’s fun to compare the data to what you already know of your dog’s behavior and body language and come to your own conclusions.
-- Young puppies and kittens can have “innocent” heart murmurs that don’t indicate structural malformations of the heart. Most innocent murmurs disappear by the time the animal is 6 months old, although some persist into adulthood. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.