Many are unaware that kittens have a sensitive period during which socialization is important. This may be due to the continued belief by many that cats are independent, aloof and antisocial. Socialization periods for kittens are as important as they are for puppies. Kittens that miss out on socialization frequently develop behavior problems such as play aggression, inappropriate play behavior and fear aggression.
Kittens that are actively socialized are less fearful in unfamiliar situations and adapt better to changes in their environment. Leaving them with their mom and siblings until 8 weeks of age (some recommend 12 weeks) gives the best chance for good behavior later in life. Many single kittens that are hand-raised from a very young age without the benefit of mom and other siblings become cautious and aggressive as adults. Socialization, pairing new experiences with rewards, builds confidence. Whereas puppies attend socialization and training classes, this is nearly unheard of for kittens. Therefore, breeders and owners need to be more proactive.
The primary socialization window for kittens occurs from 2-7 weeks of age and a secondary one lasts from 9 weeks to 14-16 weeks. It starts with self-play and batting of objects and social play among littermates by 3 weeks of age. From 4-11 weeks social play increases and peaks at 12 weeks. Species identification occurs during which allows cats to recognize other cats and it also teaches them tolerance and acceptance of other cats in social situations. By 12 weeks social play begins to wane and object play predominates until about 4 months of age. Towards the end of 4 months, kittens are wired to become more suspicious and fearful of things they have not experienced.
Since most kittens are not brought home until 7-8 weeks, their primary and critical socialization period will be completed before meeting you. Therefore, it is important to find a breeder that understands the importance of and provides good socialization. During the primary socialization period, kittens should become accustomed to being handled by different people. This should include gentle handling by men, women and supervised children. Playing hard-to-get will foster the kittens naturally curiosity to seek you out. Wands with feather toys and synthetic feline pheromones can be used to encourage interactive play with people. Fifteen minutes of daily handling is recommended. They should tolerate being touched all over including ears, feet, mouth and tummy. Kittens should also be exposed to collars, cat carriers, car rides (once comfortable with the cat carrier), different types of litter, and eye dropper or syringe dosing since they will experience many of these things as adult cats.
Here is a list from Vetstreet of potential things your kitten should be exposed to during their socialization period.
Unlike socialization, which refers to getting young animals accustomed to people, other animals and situations, social referencing refers to getting young animals habituated to a variety of new objects and routine sounds and odors in their environment. Social referencing involves all of the senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. This can include vacuums and vacuuming, music, microwave bells and door bells. Consider the following suggestions:
While the primary socialization period may have passed by the time you have picked up your new kitten, do not despair. There is still plenty of time during the secondary period to mold your kitten into a well socialized cat. Kittens are initially fearless and inquisitive, and this can be used to your advantage to help them adjust to their new life in your family.