How Early Should Cats Be Handled by Humans?

Posted on 30 Nov 2015 23:21 by EricT


When I was growing up, there was an old wives tale about kittens. If you handle a cat too early, its mother will reject it, stop feeding it, and allow it to starve. Therefore, you must wait until the kitten is almost ready to wean before you start handling it.

As a result of this belief, many people ended up having cats that never showed the kind of affection toward them they would have liked. This lead to the further belief that "cats are different than dogs. The are aloof, and they don't like humans the way dogs do."

Cats are more aloof compared to dogs. They do like to spend more time alone than dogs. But how they behave towards their humans has much to do with just how young they are when they are handled by humans. This very important period in a house cats life is called the socialization period. The question is, how early should this be?

Surely, there is plenty of time to get a kitten socialized towards humans. As long as they are still in kittenhood they should be able to learn to trust and even be affectionate towards humans, seeking out their company.


Unfortunately, this is not true. Both cats and dogs have a certain period of time in which they are more easily socialized to humans. However, research has shown that this period in cats is much earlier than previously assumed, and quite curtailed.

The prime socialization period is most often reported to be from 2 to 7 weeks of age. However, the earlier in this period that socialization and habituation occurs, the better. Why is this?

As author John Bradshaw reveals in Chapter 3 of his fascinating book Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Cat to Your Friend, every cat has to learn to be domestic. They are not born attached to people, but they are born with the ability to attach to people. The problem is that unlike humans, cats, as well as dogs, have a very short period of time in which to learn about their environment. Only a few weeks. Then, they must be ready to fend for themselves and deal with the challenges of their environment.

unweaned kitten with eyes closed in hand
unweaned kitten with eyes closed in hand

Cats aged 3 weeks that are introduced to many different people, handled, showed affection, and shown many different situations common to life with humans will show quite a bit more attraction to humans that cats aged 7 weeks. While the cat socialized at 3 weeks of age may be a lap cat, preferring to be with humans, coming when called, etc. the cat socialized at 7 weeks may be a little less eager, jump off your lap quicker, and spend a bit more time one its own.

In either scenario, the cat may be a well-adapted and adaptable cat, but if you want a "lap cat" you need to socialize him or her as early as possible.

Of course, each cat is different and there are more factors which determine a cat's behavior than when it is socialized, and we cannot guarantee that any cat will be highly affectionate and want to spend a lot of time with humans.

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