Kittens have a critical period for socialisation between 2 and 7 weeks of age. A young cat must meet a variety of people during this time as well as interacting with its mother and litter mates. It should be handled every day for a total of at least one hour (but this time should be split into several short sessions of around 5 to 10 minutes, as kittens, like babies will easily become tired and upset if they are over-stimulated.) It should ideally meet and be handled by women, men, children and teenagers so that it has experience of many different types of human. If the kitten is to be homed where there is a dog then exposure to dogs at this stage will also be helpful. (Never leave dogs and kittens unsupervised together!) If kittens meet a wide range of different people and have positive experiences with them at this early age, then you are likely to end up with a well adjusted, happy and friendly cat. If this exposure is limited or non existent then the kitten and later the adult cat will be nervous or fearful around people and will not make such a good pet.
During the socialisation period between 2 and 7 weeks of age a kitten should also experience as much as possible about its environment. It should be provided with a variety of toys and other objects to explore. It should have supervised exposure to the outdoor world as well as the household environment with all the noise and bustle which goes on in day to day life. The kitten should hear the TV, vacuum cleaner and washing machine and other household noises if it is not to be fearful of them later in life. If it is able to experience as many things as possible while it is in the socialisation period it will become a confident adult cat able to cope with the unfamiliar.
Unfortunately many prospective cat owners will not be able to provide all these experiences during the critical time since most kittens do not leave their mothers until they are 8 to 12 weeks old. It is therefore important when choosing a kitten to consider the environment in which it has been raised. A kitten coming from a busy family home will probably make a more confident pet than a farm kitten raised in the barn.
When you have chosen a new kitten (hopefully from a good home) you must ensure that it continues to have a wide range of positive experiences in varied situations. Introduce your new kitten gradually and gently to a range of different people, animals, objects and noises. This will ensure that it continues to develop into a confident, friendly adult.
When you get a young kitten at around 8 to 12 weeks of age you separate it from its own mother and effectively become a parental substitute. The young kitten will cry for food and attention and will snuggle up to its owner for warmth in the same way it has been behaving towards its mother up until now. If this kind of behaviour brings the rewards of nourishment, companionship, warmth and shelter (as it usually will) then the behaviour is said to have been reinforced and the kitten will continue to behave in this way into adulthood in order to obtain these rewards. This is the type of behaviour most pet cats show towards their owners and is one of the signs of a well socialised cat.
If something does go wrong during the critical socialisation period then a cat may become fearful or aggressive in nature. It may not want to interact with its owners, or if it does interact may occasionally show fearful behaviour and bite or scratch. Cats which have not been socialised adequately during the critical period can be helped and may gradually learn to accept and enjoy human company. However it will require dedication and perseverance on behalf of the owners and the cat may never make such a good pet as one who has had positive and varied experiences during early kitten-hood.