The benefits of running successful puppy socialisation classes are clear. With this model in mind, discuss the pros and cons for the kitten and the owner of attending kitten socialisation classes.
With owners expecting their dogs to cope with all sorts of unfamiliar stimuli on a daily basis, the valuable contribution of puppy classes towards shaping a well-behaved, balanced dog is becoming more and more widely accepted.
Cats though, often regarded as unsocial predators, have correspondingly fewer demands made of them. Kitten classes do exist, but are less popular than their puppy counterparts and remain a relative unknown amongst many of the cat-owning fraternity (based on a straw poll of about 30 UK and UAE-based cat owners).Puppy classes: the aims
According to Erica Peachey, puppy classes have developed from an idea brought to the UK in the Eighties by Dr Ian Dunbar (1). Peachey says they should actively teach puppies:
- good manners;
- to cope and behave obediently in a variety of everyday situations;
- to learn to interact with adults, children and other animals;
- how to respond to their owners’ wishes;
while teaching the owners:
Socialisation and the sensitive period
- responsible dog ownership;
- how to avoid potential behaviour problems such as aggression or anxiety;
- how to overcome typical problems such as mouthing and house-training;
- how to shape their puppy’s behaviour and confidence in all situations;
- as well as increase the owner’s overall understanding of their puppy.
In the case of domestic dogs “the socialisation window closes at between three and five months of age, depending on the breed and individual make-up, with easy habituation drying up at around four and a half months of age in the majority of cases” (2). After 16 weeks of age, a dog’s ability to develop or change its social skills is limited and at this age, a dog’s social personality is essentially “set for life” (3).
So this gives puppies 18 weeks, the maximum age experts recommend for attending puppy classes, to become socialised and habituated. Compare this to their feline counterparts, who have to progress from being blind and deaf at two weeks to having a good grasp of the fundamentals of hunting behaviour by six-eight weeks, to being a fully self-sustainable, solitary predator at around 14 weeks.
Crucially, in kittens, the ‘sensitive’ period for socialisation to humans (and other species for that matter) occurs between two-seven weeks of age. At this stage a kitten should still be with its mother, so the onus is on the breeder to handle the kittens and get them used to human contact, not the owner. A kitten “must experience as much as possible of domestic life during this period in order to be able to take everything in its stride” as an adult (4). Turner and Bateson found that the more handling a kitten has received, the ‘friendlier’ it will be towards humans, with most experimental treatments resulting in socialised kittens being based on 30-40 minutes of handling a day (5).Kitten ‘kindies’: what are they?
According to Sarah Heath, much has been written about the importance of the socialisation period to the behavioural development of the dog, but far less importance has been given to the effect of early life on the behaviour of the domestic cat (6). As such, so-called kitten kindies are in fact a relatively new concept which, based on a cursory ‘google’ search, seem to be more prevalent in Australia than anywhere else.
They are nowhere near as common as puppy classes, which may be because cats are generally able to toilet train themselves, are (usually) not required to walk on leads or travel on long car journeys, do not necessarily need to socialise with other cats, dogs or people (unless they live with them), and are often able to amuse themselves by playing or hunting. Although a pet cat will seek out attention if and when it chooses, it is often the one to initiate the contact, to decide where it sleeps, when it goes out and so on, so does not require – or respond to - a structured activity schedule like a dog.
According to the Australian RSPCA, many kittens are abandoned each year because their owners cannot tolerate their behaviour (7). So kitten kindies have been developed as an early socialisation and training programme aiming to:
- prevent behavioural problems by giving the kitten adequate stimulus to develop a ‘balanced’ personality;
- to establish a strong bond between the kitten and its owner(s);
- provide an education programme for owners regarding feline behaviour;
- establish the importance of play as a prelude to predatory behaviour;
- educate owners on nutrition, the importance of microchipping, and essential equipment such as feeding bowls and litter trays, vaccinations and general healthcare.
So, like puppy classes, an emphasis is placed on owner education, interaction and bonding between the owner and the pet, teaching the pet to cope in everyday situations and eliminating behaviour problems before they become established. The recommended age for a kitten to attend is 6-12 weeks, after the first vaccination, for a course of four classes over four weeks. If a kitten is still with its mother up until the age of eight weeks, then this leaves four weeks to attend the course, which is about right, according to the Australian RSPCA, which says that “at 7–8 weeks kittens have developed good eye-paw co-ordination, and social play develops between 6-12 weeks of age”. A good time then to attend kitten kindy and start
practising these skills.Kitten classes: benefits for kittens and owners
According to Moelk (1979), most people who have bred cats appreciate that kittens often show individual differences in behaviour at an early age (5). So, if their personality and level of ‘friendliness’ has largely been formed by the age of about eight weeks, what use could a kitten class really be?
Firstly, learning opportunities missed early on in life can sometimes be made up later, although normally this takes longer (8). By the same token, if a kitten had been handled by no one, or just one person up to the age of six weeks, early attendance at a kitten class might help it generalise this friendliness to other humans, as well as other kittens. And the kitten with no siblings might pick up valuable pointers from other kittens (how hard to bite, when to retract the claws during play etc.) by mimicking their behaviour.
Perhaps more pertinent is the opportunity kitten classes present for kittens to play as an outlet for their predatory behaviour, making them less likely to experiment on humans. Like puppies, they are desperate to learn and curious to investigate new things, and it does not take much effort on the part of the owner to motivate them. But a ‘classroom’ environment would not be necessary for this.
More relevant still might be the kitten’s getting used to a cat carrier and going in the car so it would learn to associate such events with a pleasurable experience, rather than with the annual trip to the vet. Not to mention the invaluable introduction to new experiences, people, cats and smells, all which can be explored in a safe environment, thereby building confidence.
From the human perspective, kitten classes provide the perfect opportunity for education on behaviour; how to handle undesired behaviour if it occurs, and the importance of reinforcement over punishment; how to handle the pet/teach children to handle the pet/introduce a new cat, dog or baby; and how to train a cat to come when its name is called (also a safety issue), to walk on a lead or use a cat flap.
As such, if and when problems such as furniture scratching or spraying do occur, the owner will know that they are natural behaviours and have an idea of how to handle them, rather than adhere to the popular myth that the cat is doing it out of spite or for revenge.
Classes can also play a valuable role in educating owners how to behave around the cat, to try to understand how the cat is feeling, and to read its body language (e.g. a wagging tail signals an irritated cat and a possible imminent attack).
An important psychological point is the fact that an owner will have the chance to show off their kitten and have its behaviour and/or personality admired by others. This is significant in terms of strengthening the bond between the owner and the kitten, and the ‘feel good’ factor should never be underestimated. In tandem with this, as in a puppy class, owners can also compare notes and discuss problems and idiosyncrasies, creating a bond with both the trainer and other owners.Kitten classes: the limitations
Although cats often leave peaceably in multi-cat households or feral colonies, they do not really need to interact with other cats, dogs, humans or animals to survive. Even if they are sharing a home, they may not necessarily form a close attachment to certain members of the household. So the benefits of introducing kittens to other kittens at a kitten class may be negligible, especially as these introductions would be made at the tail end of the socialisation period, and after the sensitive period.
Also, given the cat’s territorial nature, the value of a lesson in being around other animals might be limited, but a class could certainly educate owners on lessening the likelihood of territorial aggression occurring (e.g. having the cat neutered/spayed or not letting it out at night). Even if cats do not fight, they will not necessarily get along and will often work out their own social arrangements which a human has little influence on – and is possibly totally unaware of.
Whenever I have introduced kittens to one another, they have been wary and not approached each other immediately. In such cases, 45 minutes’ exposure at a kitten class would not be beneficial. All the kittens in question became good playmates eventually, but this would not have been achievable in the timeframe of a kitten class. Even if it did happen quickly, it is possible the kitten would forget by the following week – unless it is friendly and outgoing by nature, in which case it will approach other kittens/cats/humans in any case and classes would not be necessary.
In any case, how does one control a group of kittens? Is it even necessary to control them if they are running around chasing each other and having fun? It would be important in a kitten class to take into account the individual personality of the kittens. Some are naturally friendly, others more reserved. So the question would be whether classes could address this so that each individual animal would be able to benefit.
Exposing a timid kitten to unfamiliar kittens and humans may make it even more timid in their presence. The same situation could encourage a kitten with a tendency towards aggression to bully some of the others. And, as in a puppy class, if the kitten or the owner gets stressed, learning ability becomes severely hampered. But if undesirable behaviours can be pinpointed and corrected at this stage, then the kitten class is performing a valuable function.
Cats do not generally need to get used to as many stimuli as dogs. They simply run away from or avoid people or situations they perceive as threatening or uninteresting, so the need to get them accustomed to a variety of situations is largely a moot point. Certainly cats do not need to learn to walk in the park or down the street on a lead (usually), or to interact with unfamiliar people or animals, so the need for training in a kitten class is limited. But classes can at least make the owner aware of how to effectively train a particular desired behaviour, such as using the cat flap, if required.
Another point to note is that kittens have sharp claws and teeth, and can be hard to control if they get stressed or scared. If they get very frightened, they might become fearful of humans/other kittens/strange environments/noises/smells, a situation that could take time to overcome. It would also be necessary to consider the possibility of the spread of disease. To be on the safe side, each kitten would probably need its own litter tray. Biting and scratching, should they occur, could also spread disease.
Finally, according to Karen Pryor, a cat gets tired after about five minutes of training, which may also impact on the benefit of attending a kitten class (9). Cats do not have the same social restrictions as dogs and do not have to be ‘obedient’ in everyday situations. Granted, they have to learn not to jump on the kitchen counter or climb up the curtains, but they are not expected to respond to commands such as ‘sit’, ‘fetch’, ‘stay’ etc., like a dog is. So training is largely another moot point, unless the owner is doing it for entertainment purposes, such as Pryor teaching a cat to play the piano using chunks of ham as a primary reinforcer.Conclusion
Given the fact that kittens by their very nature are curious creatures, kittens would probably not learn much in a kitten class that they would not learn anyway, by themselves or at home with their owners. Although they could certainly have a lot of fun in a kitten class, it would be essential that they were comfortable with the situation and not experiencing stress or fear, and this might be difficult for both the owner and the trainer to ascertain correctly.
It is likely that such classes are actually more beneficial for the owners in terms of educating them on all aspects of cat care and behaviour. In this respect, their function is exactly the same as a puppy class. The by-product is then that the kitten benefits greatly from the owner’s greater understanding of its behaviour. So while playing with a piece of string in a room full of other kittens may have its limitations in terms of rounded kitten development, the more far-reaching implications are the building of the kitten-owner bond, and the acquisition of knowledge on the part of the owner to ensure the kitten is correctly cared for and better understood as it enters adulthood.
The very fact that kitten kindies are so named (as opposed to puppy classes) indicates that they are designed more for the kittens to have fun than to actually teach them anything. Perhaps the more important goal is to teach their owners how to look after them. If so, they are well worth the time and investment.Bibliography(1) Erica Peachey: in The APBC Book of Companion Animal Behaviour, Souvenir Press 2004(2) Jean Donaldson: The Culture Clash – James & Kenneth 1996(3) Raymond & Lorna Coppinger: Dogs – A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution – Crosskeys Select 2004(4) Peter Neville & Claire Bessant: The Perfect Kitten – Octopus 1997(5) Dennis Turner & Patrick Bateson: The Domestic Cat – The Biology of its Behaviour – Cambridge University Press, 2000(6) Sarah Heath: Why Does My Cat? – Souvenir Press, 1993(7) Australian RSPCA – www.rspca.org.au(8) Peter Neville: Think Cat – COAPE(9) Karen Pryor: Don’t Shoot the Dog – Bantam, 1999Copyright
© Susan Nilson 2004