Socializing and instilling good behaviors in kittens

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Four kittens in a cat tree, three looking to the side and one looking at the camera

Your goal as a foster caregiver is to prepare your foster kittens for forever homes. While a big part of that is helping the kittens to grow and be healthy, another component is helping them develop the good habits that will make them wonderful companions for their adopters.

Establishing good litter box habits

Start introducing your kittens to the litter box around the age of four weeks. Make sure the litter box you are using has low sides, to make it easy for the kittens to climb in and out. Some foster caregivers like to use disposable litter boxes, and that’s fine. Keep kittens confined to a small area and have at least one litter box in each room that the kittens can access. You can encourage the kittens to use the bathroom facilities by gently returning them to their litter box every 15–20 minutes while they’re playing.

You also want to make sure that you are scooping the litter box at least twice a day, more if you have a large litter or they have diarrhea. You will also need to dump the litter box entirely every two to three days and clean with dish soap. A clean litter box will promote good bathroom habits for the kittens going forward. If your foster kittens are not using the litter box, please notify the foster coordinator so you can start resolving the issue before it becomes a habit.

Oftentimes, kittens miss the litter box if they have medical issues like diarrhea, or if they have too much free space, causing them to forget where the box is when they have to go. Clean all accidents with an enzymatic cleaner and don’t ever punish a kitten for having an accident.


One of your goals as a foster caregiver is to help prepare your foster kittens for living successfully in a home. So, you’ll want to help your foster kittens to develop good habits and skills through the use of positive reinforcement, which builds a bond of trust between you and your foster pets. The basic idea is to reward desirable behaviors and ignore unwanted behaviors.

You must not punish the kittens for behavior that you find undesirable because punishment is ineffective at eliminating the behavior. If a kitten is doing something undesirable, distract him or her before the behavior occurs. It is also important for every human in the foster home to stick to the rules established for your foster pets, which will help them to learn faster.

Play time

Play time is a very important part of kitten development. It is crucial for young kittens to have other kittens to wrestle with in order to develop appropriate play skills and be properly socialized with other kittens. Kittens also need toys to play with so that they can get physical exercise and mental stimulation. There are two types of toys that help with kitten development:

  • Solo toys are things the kittens can play with when you aren’t there. These toys should be easy to clean and impossible for the kittens to consume. Examples are ping pong balls, toilet paper tubes, bottle corks and plastic shower curtain rings.
  • Interactive toys are things that you use to engage the kittens in play. Examples are Da Bird (a feather dangling from a string) and other toys with yarn or string attached. Don’t leave kittens alone with these toys, since they can easily strangle or be ingested by the kittens.

During play time, it is always important to discourage kittens from biting your hands and feet. It may seem cute, but we want to avoid teaching kittens a habit that adopters may find undesirable. For more details, read “Kitten Plays Too Rough.”

Socializing and handling

Introducing your foster kittens to new things and new experiences will also help prepare them for living happily in forever homes. Follow these rules to positively expose your kittens to new people, environments and noises:

  • New people: Introducing your foster animals to new people will help them become well-adjusted adult cats. Monitor all interactions with new people, though, to ensure that they are positive, not scary, experiences for the kittens. Have new people give gentle pets and treats to the kittens and interact with them using fun toys. If children are visiting, they must always be supervised until they are old enough to understand how to gently interact with a kitten.
  • New environments: It will help the kittens’ adjustment into adopters’ homes if you can allow your kittens to experience different parts of your home. Whenever you introduce the kittens to a new space, provide lots of treats and play with interactive toys so that the kittens associate the new space with their favorite things. Keep the exploratory sessions brief so you don’t overwhelm your kittens, and return them to their living space if they do seem overwhelmed or scared.
  • New noises: It is beneficial to expose kittens to a variety of normal household noises but, again, try to do it in a positive way. The key is to introduce different noises gradually. For example, start by keeping a radio on low volume and gradually increase the volume over a few days. Another example: Run the vacuum in another room at first, with your kittens at a safe distance. Then, over the course of a few days, move the vacuum noise closer to their room. If another person plays with the kittens while you make the noise, it may help alleviate any stress or fear that they may feel. Some kittens are naturally fearful, so just go even slower with the timid ones.

Another thing you can work on with your foster kittens is getting them comfortable with being in a cat carrier. When you are not using the carrier for transportation, leave the carrier (with the door removed or securely propped open) in your foster kittens’ room. Put toys, treats and a soft blanket in the carrier, to encourage the kittens to go in and spend time there.

Schedule for successful socialization

If your foster kittens are not socialized at all when you bring them home, you’ll need to have a more focused socialization plan. Remember, keep all experiences positive for the kittens.

Days 1–7: Your foster kittens may be hissing, swatting, spitting and/or growling. Activities to engage in:

  • “Burrito-wrapping” the kitten in a blanket or towel: Use gloves and a towel to handle the kitten if needed.
  • Hand-feeding: Feed the kittens dabs of baby food (protein only, with no onion or garlic on the ingredients list) or canned tuna by hand.
  • Picking up and returning: Repeatedly pick up each kitten and return him/her to their safe space.
  • Playing: Try engaging the kittens in play with interactive toys.

Days 7–14: The kittens may hiss when you approach, but respond to touching and petting. Activities to engage in:

  • Handling: Continue handling and petting the kittens. If improvement is shown, try to move to handling other body parts, but do not go too fast.
  • More playing: Start standing and walking around while playing with the kittens, to get them used to normal human movement.
  • More hand-feeding: Give the kittens treats while you handle them, to help them learn that you are not a threat.

After 14 days: Your kittens may still be shy, but should be more comfortable with you approaching them and should no longer display defensive aggression behaviors. If your kittens do not show improvement at all after two weeks of attempts at socialization, please contact the foster department for guidance.