by Elizabeth Wasserman
When it comes to pet training, dogs traditionally have had a paw up on their feline counterparts. Programs to increase a cat's socialization and training aren't considered by most pet owners and didn't exist until recently. But school is becoming the "in" thing for kittens, with the advent of kitten kindergarten.
Kitten kindergarten is the brainchild of Australian veterinary behaviorist Kersti Seksel, who opened her own "Kitty Kindy" under a decade ago for young cats aged 7 to 14 weeks. The concept has now appeared in the U.S., where in many communities from coast to coast courses are spread out over a few weeks. These courses allow kittens to play and interact with owners and other cats. Owners also learn to care for their kittens, and behavior problems are nipped in the bud.
"People have had misconceptions about cats: that they're loners and that they're not sociable. But they are wrong," says Pam Johnson-Bennett, a certified animal behavior consultant and author of books on feline care, including Psycho Kitty (TenSpeed Press 2007). "It's laying a foundation for great socialization and hopefully the prevention of future behavior problems."
What Is It?
Kitten kindergartens are being offered by a variety of veterinarians, humane societies, behaviorists and other specialists. In the U.S., the programs tend to be targeted at kittens between 8 and 15 weeks old. The young felines generally must be up-to-date on shots and have a health form signed by a veterinarian saying they are in good health and have tested negative for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV).
Steve Dale, a cat behavior consultant in the Chicago area who teaches kitten classes around the country, says that the goals of any kitten kindergarten should include getting a cat accustomed to a pet carrier, helping to socialize a cat and teaching owners how to handle, feed and play with their pets. Dale, who developed his curriculum based on Dr. Seksel's teachings and feline behavior guidelines from the American Association of Feline Practitioners, says these goals are achieved through a variety of games, drills and introductions to other cats, people and even dogs. Pet owners should also get opportunities to ask questions and learn some of the basics about having a cat at home -- Litter Box 101, discouraging scratching on furniture, diet information and grooming, among other issues.
What's the Benefit for Your Cat?
Cats, like other animals, go through an early development stage when they trust that everything in their environment is safe, including people, other pets and surroundings. For kittens, this stage generally comes between about 8 and 15 weeks of age. "Cats have this very narrow window where physiologically they are like putty, and you can teach them all sorts of things," Dale says. This is a great time for bonding with a family and becoming comfortable in a new home. But after that stage, as cats begin to explore, they can become more timid and cautious of new people, places and things.
"None of us want to find our cat ducked under the bed when we have to take her to the clinic," says Arden Moore, editor of Catnip, the monthly magazine for cat owners from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. "With something like kitty kindergarten, you're starting off on the right paw, if you will. You're showing your cat that the carrier is a safe, welcoming place. The car is no big deal. And the veterinarian's office is no big deal. You're getting them used to being handled by different people and safely introduced to new environments."
Socialization to new places, people, pets and situations while a kitten is in that impressionable stage will create positive associations for the cat. If a kitten gets used to being handled by pet owners and even strangers, then it may be more receptive and relaxed at veterinary exams or routine events like getting their nails cut and teeth brushed.
What's in It for You?
Kitty kindergarten, while less focused on training tricks, helps to develop positive behaviors so that cat and owner may cohabitate in the most positive environment.
"It's creating a good relationship from the beginning between the kitten and the owner," Johnson-Bennett says. "Because it's a relationship, you need to know what the cat needs and how to provide it. Having your cat be more sociable and comfortable around people and other pets means they are less likely to hide when the doorbell rings, they're more comfortable being held and it's easier to introduce another pet into the household."
Kitten kindergarten works on a variety of levels. Brand-new cat owners can learn the basics of feeding, litter box maintenance, grooming and even playing with their pet. For more experienced pet owners, the classes can aid in socializing their pet so they have fewer adjustment issues later on when they want to bring home a dog or visit the veterinarian.
Where to Find Kitten Kindergartens
Kitten kindergartens have been opening in communities around the country. Here are some resources to find one that is right for you:
Check with your veterinarian
Many veterinarians are taking the initiative to start these classes. "It's a great way to put a cat in a fun environment when they visit the vet, not just for the dreaded vaccinations," Moore says.
Talk to the local humane society
These organizations also see kitten kindergartens as a positive way to reduce the number of cats that are abandoned or put up for re-adoption due to behavior problems. "Shelters really love it," Moore says. "It's helping kittens get socialized and adopted."
Pet experts have set up Web sites with information about kitten kindergartens. Steve Dale's Pet World Web site contains a variety of resources, as does the Web site of veterinary behaviorist Sophia Yin, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Her site is called AskDrYin.
American Association for Feline Practitioners
The AAFP has developed feline behavior guidelines that might be helpful in choosing your kitten kindergarten. The group has a Web site called CatVets.
Kitten kindergartens are a sign of change in our understanding of what cats need and what type of relationship you can have with your cat. Kitten kindergartens, Dale says, help owners to provide both mental and physical stimulation for their feline friends. Kitty can then graduate to its next stage of life, feeling healthy, prepared and confident.