Monday 8 September 2008

Early socialisation of kittens


The parents of Hanna (aged 5) and Luke (aged 3)wanted a cat that would be good with children, and when their neighbour’s cat had kittens, the opportunity was too good to miss, and "Bowie", an Asian kitten, is now part of the Kane household. The Kane family had been considering getting a pet for some time. Hanna and Luke’s parents had heard that pet ownership was good for children. Studies have shown that people who grow up with pets in the household tend to be more socially adept and self-confident. Nobody knows why this happens, but it may be partly to do with the fact that animals are experts in non-verbal communication. A dog or a cat cannot talk to a child, so instead, they communicate with their bodies, and body language has aspects that are universal across the species barriers. If a dog wants to go outside, he will look at you, with pleading eyes. If a cat wants to play, she will come up to you with her head held to one side, and her body tense and alert, ready for the game. It is easy to forget that children need to learn body language, just as much as they need to learn to speak and write English. Pets give free daily lessons in how to use your body to communicate.
Choosing the right pet is important. Dogs are more demanding than cats. They can’t be left alone for long stretches, and they need to be given regular walks. Cats are independent, intelligent creatures, but some people just don’t like them. Rabbits – living free-range in the house – are increasingly popular. Other pets – like guinea pigs, gerbils or cage birds – don’t tend to interact with humans in the same personal way as the bigger pets. When choosing a pet, you need to look at the facts about what is involved with keeping a particular animal, but you also need to choose a creature that you like, and that you will enjoy having in your home.
The Kanes had the ideal introduction to cat keeping. Their next-door neighbours had two cats, Minnie and Coco, a pair of pedigree Asians. Hanna and Luke often visited the neighbours, and loved to spend time playing with the two cats. Asian cats are similar to Burmese cats, but with lighter coloured coats. They are alert, active, intelligent cats, well-known for their friendly disposition. Compared to the average moggy, Asians have elegant, slim but muscular bodies, and a short, wedge-shaped face. They have short, fine hair, which is easy to maintain, requiring minimal brushing. Asian cats love attention, and are known for their curiosity and friendliness.
The Kanes would not normally have considered getting a pedigree cat, but when they heard that Minnie was pregnant, and that a kitten might become available, it began to seem like an interesting option. Hanna and Luke were able to witness the series of events, from Minnie’s swelling abdomen during the pregnancy through to the arrival of the two kittens. They introduced to them when they were just a few hours old, as tiny, squirming sausages of life.
The new kittens were a major event in the children’s world, and their arrival may be one of the first memories that the two children recall when they are adults. Hanna and Luke followed the kittens’ progress carefully, watching them as they grew bigger, as their eyes opened at ten days of age, and as they started to emerge from their den, exploring the world around them. Minnie was a gentle mother who was happy to show off her kittens, allowing the children to play with them from a very early stage. Before long, the kittens were visiting the Kane household every night for a few hours, playing games with the children.
This close relationship between the children and the kittens seemed to just “happen” because of circumstances, but in fact, it was the best possible start in life for those kittens. Behavioural specialists have discovered that the age between two and seven weeks is a critical time in the development of a kitten’s personality. This time is known as the “sensitive period”, and events that take place during this stage have a long term effect. If kittens do not spend time with humans at this stage, they are more likely to grow up as “scaredy cats”, nervous or even aggressive in the presence of unfamiliar humans. On the other hand, if kittens meet a range of different people, and are exposed to the normal daily life of a busy human household, they are more likely to grow up as friendly, sociable cats.
The Kanes were delighted when their neighbours offered to let them keep one of the kittens, as a present. Hanna and Luke found it difficult to choose which kitten to pick, because they adored them both. In the end, it was Bowie, but in any case, his litter mate and parents continue to live next door, and so they all still spend plenty of time playing together.
Bowie is growing into a sparky, energetic cat, but he is always gentle and friendly to the children. He has been as well socialized during his “sensitive period” as it is possible for a young cat to be, so he has had the ideal start in life for a family cat. Bowie has become a part of the Kane family, and to Hanna and Luke, he is going to be a friend that they will remember for the rest of their lives.


Tips
+ Cats need careful management when they are kittens to ensure that they are sociable with humans
+ The critical socialising time is between two and seven weeks of age
+ People who breed kittens should make sure that growing kittens get plenty of attention during this stage

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