Taming the Shy or Aggressive Kitten
Young kittens may have shy or fearful personalities, especially if they have not ex- perienced a lot of gentle affectionate handling before they are adopted. As a breed- er, I seldom allow one of my kittens to leave my home before it is fourteen to six- teen weeks of age. It takes this long, with the youngster living in a secure envi- ronment with lots of handling and confidence-building experiences with humans and other cats, for my kittens to have the self-assurance and outgoing personalities that their new families want them to have. A kitten adopted at six to eight weeks of age from a shelter or home where little deliberate socialization has taken place is certain to be skittish or, worse, aggressive. Such babies are merely acting defen- sively because they have an inborn mistrust of human beings and their noisy home environments. Overcoming this natural mistrust, which allows survival in the wild, takes time and plenty of careful, gentle handling. If you adopt a kitten that is not outgoing but rather defensive and fearful, you will need to commit the time in the first weeks after adoption to socializing your new family member. This can be done with enough time and patience, and will reward that effort with a gentle, confident, friendly cat in the end. Remember to start slow- ly. The fearful kitten must become convinced that the world is a loving, caring place, not a dangerous one. This change of attitude does not happen in a day or
two. It is a good idea to keep a shy or aggressive kitten in a small area with no furni- ture at first. This will prevent the kitten from hiding under couches and beds where it becomes difficult to provide positive experiences that will convince the baby that its new home is a safe one. A small room, such as a bathroom or utility room, can be made into the kitten’s safe space for the first weeks in its new home. Place the litter box; porcelain, metal, or glass dishes for food and water; and a nice bed in this area. The kitten will spend the first few minutes in this new territory investi- gating every nook and cranny, to make sure that there are no unseen dangers. It is a good idea not to interrupt this investigation or interfere with it in any way. This is typical behavior for any cat in a new environment. Once the kitten knows the room is a safe place, it will turn its attention to settling in, and the owner can sit quietly in the area, allowing the kitten to approach at its own pace. Offering food or perhaps a toy to play with is a good first step toward winning the kitten’s trust. Do not attempt to pick up the kitten if it resists this by struggling or hissing. Unless a kitten has been picked up and held safely already, and learned to expect good care from someone who lifts it, it will fear being dropped or other- wise mishandled when held above the ground in human hands. It may be best just to allow the kitten to approach slowly. Make no sudden moves that will seem threatening. After a period of time of quiet companionship with the baby, you will notice the kitten relaxing, at least a bit. This kind of socialization, with the human present but with no forced contact, can work wonders with any kitten that has the ability to adapt to human presence. Hand-feeding foods that are especially appetizing, like meat baby food or canned cat food that the kitten likes, can break down trust barriers rapidly. The key to suc- cess with a fearful kitten is not to rush the process, but to make the times together very pleasurable for the baby. If the kitten is so terrified that it will not approach the owner at all, it may be necessary to take the affection to the kitten. Petting a young cat that is cowering in a corner, as long as it is not rushed or rough, will usually cause a kitten to relax and begin to open up. Take as much time as necessary, in as many sessions a few hours apart as is necessary, to start bringing the kitten’s de- fenses down. Don’t persist in sessions that fail to cause the kitten to relax. Sometimes, certain family members will have greater success in creating a calm atmosphere for the kit- ten than others. Some kittens will prefer the company of children or teenagers dur- ing this socialization period, others will be more open and accepting around adults. Experiment with different family members to find the “kitten whisperer” among the group. This person will have the best success in bringing the kitten to a greater level of trust and security in the new home. Over time, you will see the kitten become more confident in its own territory.
The kitten will begin to be pleased when humans come to visit and play. As soon as this starts to occur, enlarge the kitten’s territory by allowing it to have free roam in other parts of the house. Place litter boxes and beds in these other areas. Bring the kitten back to home base after periods of time exploring other environments. Soon the kitten will be able to enjoy the entire house. It will display outgoing and confident behavior during these adventures outside its first room. Never chase the kitten and never discipline it physically as this will undo your progress. If the kitten misbehaves in some way, give it a time-out in its room. The best way to deal with misbehavior is to avoid providing opportunity for that misbe- havior. For example, if the kitten relieves itself in inappropriate places when out- side its room, make sure there are plenty of boxes available throughout the house. Alternatively, supervise its exploring time so that if it begins to look for a spot to re- lieve itself, you can take it back to its room immediately. Kittens and cats remem- ber physical abuse for their lifetime. It can become impossible to overcome the fearfulness or aggressive behavior of a cat that has been physically abused. Cor- poral punishment or any retaliation that frightens (like shouting at the kitten) are never constructive approaches to socializing a shy young cat. Adopting a new cat, whether it is very young or already adult, is a significant commitment that can span decades. If you follow through on that commitment with love, care, and attention to the needs of your new pet, you will experience a relationship that will fill your own life with the deep satisfaction that animal com- panionship can bring.