How cats learn
This article was written in collaboration with Katzen-artig, Coaching für Katzen und ihre Menschen.
Cats are, against all prejudices, very social and adaptive animals. The first socialization is considered the most important learning phase in the life of a cat and takes place within the family. From birth on, kittens learn everything they need for a fulfilled cat life from their mother, siblings and other conspecifics. When playing with their siblings, kittens learn quickly how far they can go with their claws and pointed teeth. At the same time first limits are set. In their first weeks of life, kittens also learn a certain amount of self-control and frustration tolerance.
The more the kittens experience in the first weeks and the more contact they have with other kittens and humans, the more they will be prepared for life. During this time the foundation for a cats behaviour – openly and sociably, cuddly and self-confidently, shy and withdrawn or roughly and even aggressively – is laid. Furthermore, genetics also has an influence on the character of a cat.
Experience and character building
If you wish for a playful and cuddly cat, a corporate socialization is important. Especially in the first seven weeks of life the contact to humans is crucial for kittens. If a young cat has too little experience with humans until this age, the kitten will usually show a rather reserved behaviour as a result. Therefore you should visit your darling frequently before she is old enough to take her home to you.
Although it sometimes seems like the mother cat does not care too much for her kittens after the 8th week, the kittens are still raised by her. Until the 12th week of life, kittens also practice intensively the finer points of a cats body language. Beyond that, politeness towards other conspecifics and appeasement behaviour are trained in this socialisation phase.
When choosing a kitten you should definitely consider these facts. Therefore you never should take a kitten out of a functioning cat family association before the 12th week of life. Between the 13th and 16th week of life, the best time has come to accustom a kitten to a new home and family. Ideally, a same-sex cat of a similar age is already living in the household or may move in at the same time. Kittens should always be allowed to grow up in suitable cat company.
How kittens learn best
Cats learn primarily through observation. The observation of conspecifics and their behaviour as well as human actions is very important for joung cats. The kittens will imitate everything that seems useful and promising to them. On the other hand, cats learn the most important rules of behaviour mainly through positive and negative associations.
In cat education these positive connections are used by conditioning. The desired behaviour is immediately rewarded with a treat, exuberant praise or through caressing. The cat notices straightaway whether certain behaviour patterns are worthwhile for her or not.
Pay attention to what kind of encouragement your cat actually react the most positive. Sometimes a little treat is appropriate in one specific situation, in others a stroke may be more effective with your velvet paw.
Besides the classical conditioning, clicker training is also considered a very successful learning method for cats. It can be used, for example, to teach all kinds of tricks.
Do I have to train my cat?
Cats are very intelligent and need intellectual challenges. Even if some house cats aren’t very enthusiastic about training, the majority of cats can be motivated very well. Especially indoor cats must be kept busy at home, otherwise they will quickly feel underchallenged. Unfortunately, some people still think that there is nothing to do with a cat in contrast to dogs. However cats can even become depressive if they are not employed in doing something.
If you would like to know more about this topic, you can inform yourself at Katzen-artig, Coaching für Katzen und ihre Menschen.
Kittens should never be torn from their family environment too early. The first weeks of a kitten’s life are fundamental for a healthy socialisation. Through playful learning with other cats of the same species and regular contact with people, kittens get prepared for their further life. Ideally, your kitten will move into a multi-cat household and will be regularly employed with games and training sessions.