Feline development, from kitten kindergarten onward

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Cats do a lot of great stuff but also not-so-great stuff, which is confusing and frustrating for owners. Therefore, veterinarians need to help owners understand normal and abnormal feline behavior.

That's according to Dr. Kersti Seksel, a veterinary behaviorist who is the principal of Sydney Animal Behaviour Service in Australia. She spoke at the American Association of Feline Practitioners' 2017 conference, Oct. 19-22 in Denver.

Dr. Seksel gave a talk on how to offer kitten kindergarten classes and delivered presentations about feline development, problem intervention, and socialization.

Kitten kindergarten

In the session "Kitten Kindy Classes," Dr. Seksel said kitten kindergarten is an educational program for kitten owners. She said, "We do socialize and train the kittens, but really it's for the owners." The classes teach owners about normal feline behavior and set owners up to prevent problems and thereby prevent relinquishment of cats.

The class is ideally three one-hour sessions over three weeks with two instructors and a maximum of six kittens. The first session is kitten-free because, otherwise, everyone is looking at the kittens. The kittens should be 8-12 weeks of age and no older than 14 weeks at the end of the class. They should have had their first vaccinations and should receive a quick health check at each session. The whole family should attend.

The first session includes subjects such as cats' need for vertical space and separate areas for food, water, and resting; management of litter boxes; tips for training by rewarding desired behaviors; and environmental enrichment. The second session gets into handling, socializing the kittens, more training tips, and preventive health care. The third session covers problematic behaviors, behavioral abnormalities, and behavioral disorders.

Dr. Seksel does charge for the class because she thinks people appreciate it more if they pay for it. Each class concludes with graduation and a certificate. 

Cats look at things as ‘mine, mine, mine' and ‘now, now, now.'

Dr. Kersti Seksel, veterinary behaviorist, Sydney Animal Behaviour Service in Australia

Feline development

In the session "Important Stages in Feline Development," Dr. Seksel said behavior is what an animal does as well as when, how, where, and why the animal does it. Behavior is determined by genetics, learning, and environment. Quite a few cats have some sort of mental health disorder.

Young cats spend time learning about their environments, learning how to interact with other cats, and becoming socialized with individuals of other species. Dr. Seksel said learning occurs throughout their life. She said, "The period from birth to adulthood is characterized by intense development and change within the central nervous system." The neurohormonal systems also are involved in this phase.

Early experiences affect an animal's resiliency, or coping capacity, which also varies with genetics and the current environment. Resiliency develops in the young through exposure to microstressors. Early problem intervention may take the form of environmental management, behavioral modification, or medication.

The earliest stages of feline development are as follows: prenatal; neonatal, from birth to 2 weeks; transitional, from 2-3 weeks; and socialization, from 3-7 weeks. Human contact and handling are important at 3-9 weeks. Social play peaks at 9-14 weeks.

The juvenile period lasts from 7 weeks to sexual maturity at 4-10 months, and the adult period lasts from sexual maturity to death. Cats reach social maturity at 36-48 months. Cognitive decline occurs during the senior period.

Problem intervention, feline socialization

In "Problem Intervention: When and Why During Kitten Development," Dr. Seksel said the behavior of cats can be normal for a cat, a normal response to stress, or truly abnormal.

Behavior is species-specific and relates to the biology of the species. The domestic cat is generally solitary, an ambush hunter, and active at dawn and dusk. Social learning takes place from 2-16 weeks and beyond. Cat societies are insular, with strangers not readily accepted.

Cats need access to resources and will override their emotions to get access to important resources. Cats are solitary feeders but will eat together, for example, even if they don't like each other.

Cats don't stand in line and have no hierarchical structure. They do not wait. They need to eat now, need to urinate now. Dr. Seksel said, "Cats look at things as ‘mine, mine, mine' and ‘now, now, now.'"

According to Dr. Seksel's conference notes, "Providing an environment that meets the kitten's behavioural needs is often all that is needed to prevent behavioural issues from developing. If problems do develop then early intervention is important."

Abnormal behavior is behavior out of context, behavior that doesn't make sense for the situation. An anxiety disorder occurs when the anxiety system is overly sensitive, for example.

Treatment of abnormal behavior can include environmental management, behavior modification, and medication or pheromones, plus monitoring. Behaviors such as spraying, house soiling, and aggression may be normal or abnormal. Pica and overgrooming are never normal.

Dr. Seksel's last talk was "Feline Socialization." According to her conference notes, "Kittens need to be appropriately socialized to help them develop normally. However, even with the best socialization process not all kittens develop into confident, social pets."

The role of the veterinary practice "is to help owners understand their kitten and its behaviour and set them up for success."

Related JAVMA content

Study describes pet cat personality (Nov. 1, 2017)

AAHA releases new canine and feline behavior guidelines (Sept. 15, 2015)