Kitten Socialization Classes: A Kitten’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste
Kitten socialization classes are the most unrecognized program for cats. Result may save cat lives and increase feline veterinary visits. I am speaking about this at CatCon – Pasadena, CA Convention Center in a workshop with kittens, cleverly called Kitten Kindergarten Workshop July 29 at 12:45 p.m. and 30 at 11:15 am at the KindredBio Education Pavilion, Booth #229
The idea kitten classes were first launched in Australia with Dr. Kersti Seksel, (boarded in behavior in the U.S., Europe and Australia). “It all began when my clients in puppy classes wanted equal attention for their cats. Kittens deserve an education too.”
That was about 20 years ago, and her Kitty Kindy classes took off instantly Down Under but were about as popular is the U.S. as Vegemite (a peanut butter-type spread well-liked in Australia which most Americans detest). Now, it’s all changing in the U.S. – not for Vegemite but for kitten classes. Millennials are particularly attracted to the idea to take these classes.
I first heard about kitten classes back in 2004 as a participant/speaker at the North American Veterinary Conference post graduate institute and that proverbial light bulb instantly went off in my heard when Seksel mention her Kitty Kindies.
Even then, cats were woefully under-medicialized. Lots of reasons for this.
The Dreaded Carrier
Getting cats to the vet can be nearly impossible for some. The carrier comes out, and it’s a mad dash around the house to stuff the protesting cat into the carrier. And also, clients feel guilty about putting their beloved kitty through the ordeal, which gets even worse as the cat’s anxiety and sheer terror grows the size of tiger by the time they reach the exam room.
Based on the last studies conducted, cats, on average, visit the veterinarian less than half as often as dogs. Yet, there are about 20 percent more cats compared to dogs.
I knew that if we could get cats willingly to hop into their carriers, and not be upset about the car ride to the vet, and the exam was tolerated (maybe even enjoyed) more clients would be willing to see their veterinarians for preventive cat care. And if that happens, cat lives are saved.
Kitten Classes: I Once Offered and Will Again
So, with Seksel’s blessing and using her curriculum, I began to teach kitten classes in various places in Chicago, from a public library to a bank (after business hours) to a dog wash facility (in a room far from the dogs) – but ideally these classes are held at veterinary clinics for many reasons.
The kittens are positively exposed to the sites and smells of a veterinary clinic, and a mock exam. And, as a byproduct, clients become bonded to the clinic The kitten class instructor – most often a veterinary technician or nurse – becomes a resource when something does ultimately happen years or months later, when the cat begins to urinate outside the box or scratch the furniture.
By making it possible for cats to actually visit a veterinary clinic without fear, anxiety and stress, the experience is acceptable or even positive – it’s possible, especially when starting so young.
Unlike puppy classes (which too often these days don’t include enough structure), the goal isn’t to create play time. Seksel says, “Socialization isn’t only about play. Socialization is learning to tolerate members of one’s own species as well as members of other species.”
And it turns out, when kittens are outside their carriers (which happens once or twice only briefly during the classes) the vast majority of kitties are more interested in interacting with cat toys or humans, than with other kittens.
One of the challenges of the kitten socialization class is to enroll only kittens eight to 15 weeks (although sometimes exact ages of kittens are often unknown). When kittens are over this age, their hard-wired territorially begins to kick in. And the goal is for them to experience the event as a positive while they are little sponges.
Partnering with Shelters
These days, happily, so many kittens are adopted form shelters. Many shelters do have on-staff veterinarians, who suggest the kitty is in perfect health upon adoption. So, the public perception follows that kittens then have no real need to see a private practitioner. That’s unfortunate, and these classes can readjust this pattern.
In fact, I suggest veterinary clinics partner with an animal shelter on the kitten classes. An shelter volunteer or foster family may attend the kitten class. The “deal” with a shelter is that the shelter recommends a veterinary visit after adoption, and now they shelter can market the kitten grads as having a graduate degree.
Kitten classes also teach basic kitten care, from clipping kitten’s nails to appropriate ways to play with kittens. The late Dr. Sophia Yin suggested this idea for classes, using a pill dispenser to periodically feed tuna or moist food. Years, later when a pill is required the cat is more likely to accept it with the tuna or moist food, all from the pill dispenser. Since behavior problems are so common, prevention is best and the kitten class instructor talks about how to encourage cats to scratch in all the right places (possibly preventing declaw) and offers a lesson in litter box 101.
An overriding message conveyed to students in the class is that ANYTIME you note a change in your cat’s behavior, contact your veterinarian (not Google).
Kitten socialization classes are typically two one-hour sessions, or one 90-minute class.
Also I include is a lesson on how to teach kittens to do amazing tricks, like responding when called. Kathy Rupnel a graduate of a Chicago kitten class says, “I can’t believe it, I actually learned how to teach my cat to come when I call her. Truly, it’s a miracle.”
More about kitten socialization classes and the curriculum in a chapter written by myself and Seksel in The Cat: Clinical Medicine and Management, edited by Dr. Susan Little. The book’s updated new edition due out in 2020. Seksel also writes about the classes in her book Training Your Cat.
Hear my conversation with Dr. Julie Levy about TNR: