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Pet Behavior Articles - Feline Behavior
Kitten Kindergarten

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."
•Online resources 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.

Elizabeth Wasserman, a Washington, D.C., area-based freelancer, has been writing about
pets, among other topics, for more than 15 years. Her love of dogs, in particular, was handed
down through the generations from her great-grandfather, Eric Knight, who wrote the book
Lassie Come Home in the 1930s.
Complete KITTEN CARE

By Amy D. Shojai