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Young cats, new tricks

Kitty kindergarten creates adoptable, adorable cats

From Animal Sheltering magazine November/December 2014

The play station in kitty kindergarten should have many toys and visual barriers that allow the kittens to play near or away from their fellow “students.” Also, it’s important to introduce kittens to adult cats as well as other kittens.A young girl gives a kitten a taste of target training. By training kittens to perform a few actions, such as touching their noses to a target or sitting and staying for attention and treats, shelter staff can give adopters a tool to combat problem behaviors such as aggression.Your class environment should be comfortable enough that kittens can quickly learn to relax and eat. Veterinarian Sophia Yin feeds wet food to a kitten by syringe, a good way to provide a precise amount while keeping your fingers away from the cat’s mouth. Kittens can be trained to enjoy situations they might normally find stressful (such as receiving injections) by pairing those experiences with something pleasant (such as food).

Anyone who’s worked at a shelter or rescue knows that behavioral issues are one of the most common reasons that cats are returned after adoption or relinquished in the first place. “He’s spraying on the carpets,” “She’s aggressive to our other cat” or “She’s scratching the furniture” are common complaints.

But other times, the behavioral issues are disguised behind other statements, such as, “We have to move, and we can’t take her” or “She sheds too much.” Those are behavioral, too; they’re a sign that a bond has never really formed. These issues are typically tackled with one-on-one adoption counseling, in-shelter behavioral counseling or outsourcing to a private behaviorist.

A fun, efficient and effective way to preempt these issues for the kittens who will be adopted out is through a Kitty Kindergarten Early Socialization Program, through which kittens are exposed to and make positive associations with unfamiliar people, animals and handling procedures, and also learn tricks. These programs are not only fun, but also can serve as a valuable marketing tool for your shelter and for cats in general.

Why is Socialization Important?

If you go to a friend’s house and they have both a cat and a dog, which animal is more likely to be hiding? Whenever I ask people this question, the answer is always a resounding, “The cat!” We tend to think that cats are just normally more scared; it’s their nature to be fearful. But it turns out that cats who have gone through kitty kindergarten tend to be as social as the average dog. It’s the incompletely socialized cats who tend to remain fearful of new people, pets and environments. They tend to be less accepting of other humans and animals into their home—which can lead to aggression toward these targets. They are also more anxious overall—which means the slightest change to their world can cause them to start leaving pee-centered versions of Post-it notes as a cry for help!

Start Early

Theoretically, socialization can occur any time in an animal’s life; however, there’s a specific time frame when socialization is optimal. For kittens, that sensitive period is between 3 weeks to 3 months of age. During this time, as their eyes and ears open and they start recognizing the sights and sounds around them, their next prime directive is to learn to recognize and bond to their parents, family and environment. Their default setting is to be curious and to recognize the things around them as being safe. So even though they may startle easily, they recover quickly due in part to their curiosity and willingness to bond and explore.Then, as they become more mobile, they simultaneously become more cautious and fearful of objects and animals they have never seen. That may seem strange, but think about it: In the wild, if they didn’t develop this caution, they might walk right up to an animal to make friends, and instead be eaten! From this stage of life on, it takes much more time for them to learn to accept new animals as friends and allow new environments and objects into their safety zone.

In kitty kindergarten, the goal is to work on socializing young kittens (generally starting under 12 weeks of age) to people and other animals and situations they may come across later in life so they’ll understand that people, animals and new environments are generally safe. In class, kittens should learn two things: to associate potentially scary situations with positive experiences; and to perform behaviors such as sit, come and “target” (touch a target with their nose or other body part), which can be used to replace inappropriate behaviors (including aggression) that may get them into trouble in a new home.

Training Kittens to Love People, Places and Other Pets

Kittens can easily be trained to enjoy the variety of situations they may encounter during their lifetime if we pair those people, pets and experiences with food and other experiences that the kittens like. That means we can train them to love being in a carrier, going for car rides, meeting new people, being around other kittens and cats, being handled and carried, receiving toenail trims and injections and almost anything else that would typically scare a cat.

For instance, it’s simple to train kittens and even adult cats to love being in a carrier just by placing their regular meals in a carrier. Even if they were fearful of the carrier at first, by pairing the carrier with food, we can train them to associate the carrier with being happy, often within a week. We are changing their emotional state from fearful to happy by pairing the carrier with something they like, a method called classical counter-conditioning.Some cats are wary and take a long time to get the nerve to go into the carrier. For those cats, we can start with the food outside the carrier or in another location where the cat will quickly eat. With each meal, we can move the food a little closer to the carrier or farther into it. When we take this approach of introducing the stimulus (in this case, the carrier) at low intensity and then systematically increasing the intensity, we are using desensitization. So the overall process of training cats to love carriers and other potentially scary things is called desensitization and counter-conditioning.

In a class setting, it’s most useful to work on desensitization and counter-conditioning relative to exposure to different people and other pets they might encounter, being handled and wearing a harness. In just two to three classes, the kittens can often learn as much as a puppy might learn in a full puppy socialization course!

In kitty kindergarten, the goal is to work on socializing young kittens (generally starting under 12 weeks of age) to people, other animals and situations they may come across later in life so that they’ll understand that these encounters are generally safe.

First, we start with hungry kittens and offer tasty treats such as canned cat food, tuna, chicken, baby food or treats. The easiest is to use canned cat food in a syringe with the tip cut off. This helps you to deliver the precise amount, keep track of the amount they eat and keeps your fingers away from the mouth. Kittens under 12 weeks of age often have difficulty determining where the food ends and your fingers start. So if you deliver treats with your bare fingers, be prepared to need bandages!

Next, we make sure our class environment is comfortable enough that the kittens can quickly learn to relax in the new space and eat. If they are too scared, they won’t eat at first. The area should be quiet, and the play area should have many toys and visual barriers, which can allow them to be near or away from the other kittens.

Next, we simply let them eat in the environment. We often start with them on a table or in someone’s lap so other kittens don’t bombard them. Some kittens do better on the floor, where they can explore the toys with their littermates or a few unfamiliar kittens. When they can eat comfortably, we can start working on desensitization and counter-conditioning to the situation or handling of our choice. For instance, we can teach them to enjoy receiving injections by feeding them, and then while they are eating, handle their skin for three to five seconds. Remove the food and the handling at the same time, and then repeat this action. This timing helps to make it clear that the handling means food, and no handling means no food.Start by handling the skin lightly, and systematically handle it more firmly. The goal is to always stay at the level where the cat will still eat. This is a key point. If you go over this threshold, you’ll cause the kitten to be more scared, rather than having the intended effect. Once you can be pretty firm with the skin, you can take a capped syringe and tap the skin vigorously while giving food. Generally, within one or two sessions, the kitten doesn’t even notice or care when he’s “getting a shot.”

This same principle can then be applied to giving a toenail trim, oral medications or picking the kitten up and putting him in odd positions. Again, in just two to three sessions (and with some practice outside of class), kittens learn to enjoy these procedures.

Training Kittens in Basic Behaviors

Cats can be fearful and aggressive, and they can also be pushy and demanding. By training cats to perform a few behaviors—such as automatic sit-stay for attention and treats, come when they’re called and touch a target with their noses—shelter staff can give cats and their new adopters the tools to solve most problem behaviors. The adopter just needs to ask herself, “If I see a behavior I dislike, which of these behaviors can I have the cat perform instead?”

If the cat is about to climb the curtains, for example, the owner can call her and then engage her in more appropriate play. If the cat wants to meow and climb on the owners while they are trying to work, they can instead reward the cat for sitting quietly—at first for short periods of time, then for longer and longer periods. If a kitten is curious and wants to engage with an older household cat, they can call him over and play a short game of touch the target with the nose or have the kitten perform tricks based off this exercise—such as jump through a hoop, spin or jump from one chair to another on cue.

The best part is that teaching these behaviors is crazy-simple. As an example, to train sit, you just wait until the cat sits and then reward him while he’s sitting! Deliver one treat for sitting, and additional treats for remaining seated. With most kittens, this takes all of five minutes. To turn that into a come-when-called command, walk away and then reward the kitten for sitting when he catches up to you. Repeat this until the kitten consistently runs after you and sits. Then you can add the cue word “come” right before you know he’s going to run after and follow you.

Putting Together a Class

Now that you know what to do in class, how do you structure it? One of the best ways in terms of PR for the shelter is to create three-session classes for your in-house kittens or for your foster kittens and invite the public to attend. That way, the kittens will have a variety of people handling them, and attendees will be learning the techniques while also meeting and bonding with the kittens.In each one-to-one-and-a-half-hour session, spend 15-20 minutes going over a topic of your choice. Examples include litter box issues, enrichment or training appropriate behaviors. You’ll need enough room to set up three different stations because the rest of the class time is spent at one of these three stations: the counter-conditioning to handling station, the sit or target station and the play station, where kittens are in an area with lots of toys and a few other kittens. One-third of the class will be at each station. The number of kittens in the class depends on the number of cats you can have at each station. The sit-target training will occur on tables to help decrease distractions; the counter-conditioning often occurs with the kittens in people’s laps (so you’ll need enough chairs), and the play occurs on the floor.

Passing the Test

Yes, it’s really as simple as it sounds. And the best part is that when people take these kittens on a leash and harness for walks, or to the pet store to pick up food or treats, and when they show their friends that their cats are affectionate and come when called, the word spreads. The message is: Cats are smart and fun and affectionate. Come to our shelter and find a well-socialized feline friend.

About the Author

Editor’s note: We received word of Dr. Sophia Yin’s passing as this issue of Animal Sheltering was going to press. Yin was a veterinarian, author and applied animal behaviorist. A graduate of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, she worked as the pet columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle and taught courses in domestic animal behavior. She was widely admired as a mentor to many behaviorists and trainers, and her commitment to helping shelter animals fit better into their adoptive homes is evident in this article. She will be greatly missed