is it okay to keep two kittens together during "extended" socialization?
July 15, 2011 5:29 PM   Subscribe

will keeping siblings from the same litter together past the initial socialization be detrimental to their full socialization?

most of the stuff on the internet dealing with socializing kittens seems to focus on the initial socialization - getting them to trust humans, not hiss at humans, etc. this question is more about "extended" socialization, meaning past the point where they are no longer terrified of people.

we recently adopted two feral kittens from the same litter, one boy and one girl. they were caught when they were perhaps 7 weeks old and have been in captivity for about 4 weeks. they were socialized by a neighbor. we've had the first cat for about 7 days and the 2nd kitten for about 4 days. both have been to the vet for shots and deworm/de-flea, but they have not yet been fixed.

in isolation, neither kitten is afraid of humans. each will sit in your lap and purr when being pet, and i've even managed to trim their nails. the female kitten even slept in our bed a couple of nights. they eat their meals sitting in our laps while we hold the bowls. individually they are really great cats and i'd have no concerns if we had just one of them.

however, when we put them together, their behavior changes radically. they play fight constantly, but they do eventually settle down. when they stop fighting, they will roam around but if either sees a human, they run and hide under the bed.

accordingly, they will both scurry if we try to pick either of them up. the only way to grab one of them is to distract them with a cat toy and grab them after they have pounced. if i manage to pick one of them up and start petting them, they just try to get away as hard as they can, and never start purring, apparently distracted by the other kitten's presence and activity. they never yowl or scratch or bite in this state, but they flip around and try to wriggle out of my arms just short of violence.

almost immediately after separating them - one in the hallway bathroom and one in the bedroom, behind closed doors, they go back to being "people" cats. that is, after they make loud, sad mewing noises for a while. at this point the female kitten will sit on our bed and if we approach it, it does not run or cower. meanwhile, in the bathroom, the male kitten will sit on the pillow we put next to the toilet and respond to petting and even climb up into my lap.

my question is - are we undoing all their socialization by letting them be together? i'm a little worried about how 'feral' (to a degree) they seem when they are together. or is this just "kitten mode", and they will grow out of it? we want to return the hallway bathroom to regular service, but if it's important to keep the cats apart, we will have to think of something - guests are coming soon and they'll need that bathroom.

i want to do the right thing to make sure the cats are well socialized in the long run. if keeping them together is a bad idea, i need to find out sooner than later :)

or, am i overthinking a plate of cat food? thanks everyone.
posted by joeblough to Pets & Animals (17 answers total)
You're totally, totally overthinking it. At this point, they need both things: humans loving and caring for them, and kitten sibling for learning about being cats. Don't isolate them from each other. And really, they're just tiny, tiny babies, so you have to be less focused on the minutae of their behaviors.

Also, this question is in gross violation of metafilter cat-related question rules. (We need pictures to properly answer.)

Congrats on your sweet kitties, and good for you for adopting instead of purchasing!
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:08 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm more of a dog person but my guess is they are acting out dominance behaviors. The one in your arms has a disadvantage against the "free" one because you are restricting its movement and sort of forcing it into a submissive posture in relation to the other one.
posted by Glinn at 7:39 PM on July 15, 2011

Cats are weird. You are doing nothing wrong, and in fact, kittens are better in pairs. All that pent up energy is much, much better spent play wrestling than shredding curtains. Being with each other teaches them how to be cats, and as one learns something you might notice the other picking up it really quickly. This is a good thing (unless of course they're learning how to open doors like my kitty-crew, but, well, what can you do?)

Cats have just as many personality quirks as humans (if not more!), and these little ones personalities will develop and change just as a kids would. Keep them around humans as well as each other, don't be afraid to make human noises around them (loud voices, vacuums, etc) and know you're doing them a great service.

And yes - pictures, please!
posted by cgg at 7:45 PM on July 15, 2011

thanks for the replies, i appreciate the help. it was just worrying me that perhaps they will never be comfortable around people since their behavior is so different one-on-one vs. together. as you might expect from the question, this is the first time i've owned cats.

whoops, sorry for the lack of pictures! here's one:

kitties - muffin and boomer

to be clear, i'm not isolating them from one another all the time. they have been sleeping together in the bathroom, and today they were together for about 7 hours and then apart for about 4 hours.

the feliway website makes it sound like cats do not like each other, so i started to wonder if having them together at this formative stage might be bad. of course feliway has something to sell, so...
posted by joeblough at 8:24 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've noticed a really big difference in kitten behavior and attachment if we give them individual attention and, above all, individual interactive play.

If there are only two kittens, one of us (thank goodness my dude is willing to do this too -- fortunately kittens *are* fun) stays in a small room with non-play kitten, while the other takes playtime kitten into the larger living area and plays with it for about 15 minutes. With shy/small kittens, a shoelace is really good for this, because the kitten can't resist chasing it and it keeps the play physically close to the human.

This attention with moving around and having fun, with a person, seems to be effective. Also, it lets the kitten work off *some* energy, which seems to lead to less-rough play -- although I doubt it will have much of an effect if there are dominance issues.

I also have spent individual time with kittens to teach them their names. I'm not sure how much of a difference this has made, but my own cats knew their names very well, whatever the cause.

I've also seen fabulous bonding from clicker training (from the book "Clicker Training for Cats" or various web resources).
posted by amtho at 8:37 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

We have raised several litters of stray cats from kittens, including ones who were whack-a-doodle and ones who were very calm. I've raised kittens not from the same litter but same age, and they ended up as affectionately close to each other. Cats have complex relationships with each other, far more interesting than with their human servants. I have two on my bed right now who are sleeping curled up over each other, who woke up to bite savagely and yowl, then curl around each other and nap some more. The worst thing you can do is to separate them in my opinion. Cats with other cats are happier, and they're probably just play hiding and hunting and doing mysterious cat things with each other.

Just make sure you pet them plenty so they are happy to handled by humans.
posted by viggorlijah at 10:18 PM on July 15, 2011

Don't separate them. They are buddies. They have a great time playing together and the running from humans could be just part of that playing. Cats and other cats vary a lot, some hate them, some have real friendships and grieve if their friend is gone. Lots of good advice here. I believe that cats like humans are born with individual personalities that we can only influence so much. Enjoy your kittens, they grow too fast!
posted by mermayd at 5:33 AM on July 16, 2011

I agree with everyone saying not to separate them, I think it's just normal 'cats/kittens are wierd' behavior. My two cats (shelter cats, not ferals) will snuggle with each other and Wolf loves to snuggle with me, but it is incredibly rare for them to both snuggle with me at the same time - the currently snuggled cat always gets up and relocates if the other cat approaches. They get along terrifically otherwise - while they still occasionally get into a chase&wrestle fight, most of their roughhousing is just Wolf trying to get Loki to hold still so he can groom him.
posted by oh yeah! at 7:24 AM on July 16, 2011

You're probably looking at information about how to introduce stranger cats to one another. That info won't really apply in this case. When you introduce a new cat or kitten to your household, where an older cat is already established, then, yes, they will totally hate each other, and you will need to keep them separated for most of their day, never unsupervised, and for probably a couple of weeks at least.

Since these guys are still just tiny babies, and they're from the same litter, you don't need to follow those rules. They already know each other, and you should be able to let them be together all the time. Nurturing their bond with each other is just as important as forming a human-cat bond. And the behaviors you wrote about seem totally normal to me; that's just kittens being kittens. (This is coming from a person who has never known life without cats, and whose Very Evil Cat gave birth to two litters of kittens. We kept two of them from her first litter, and they went on to be lifelong pals with each other, and the other two cats in our household.)

Don't worry about it so much!
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 8:09 AM on July 16, 2011

I forgot to mention: the two brothers from the same litter that I kept were very well socialized to humans, and both slept with me every night for their entire lives. If they're squirming away from you now, it's probably just because they're in play mode, not pet mode. Eventually, you won't be able to get them off of you! I haven't been able to sit/lie down without a cat immediately jumping on me in almost 33 years!
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 8:18 AM on July 16, 2011

guys, thanks for the replies. i noticed this morning that the kitten that's been with us a little longer seems to be less skittish in the 2-cat context. maybe it's just a little more used to us all now. what's strange is that the cat that's been with us a shorter time is quicker to purr and interact when we're alone.

anyway, i won't worry about this too much. perhaps what i'll do is separate them at feeding time and then i can interact with them one-on-one for 15 minutes or so after they finish eating, just to reinforce the human bonding a little bit.

thanks again for all the help! metafilter rules.
posted by joeblough at 9:39 AM on July 16, 2011

I've seen the recommendation to (temporarily) separate littermates from some feral-kitten-socializers, but I didn't do that with my cats (I have four, three of whom are feral-born littermates I adopted when they were between 7-10 weeks old). Well, technically one of the three was separated from his brother and sister for 3 weeks, but he still lived outside during that time because that's how long it took me to actually trap him after getting the other two!

But anyway, when socializers make the separation recommendation, generally they are talking about kittens that are both younger than yours and in a much earlier stage of the socialization process. The idea is to get them to "bond" with a human (preferably multiple humans) early on, with the fear being that they will otherwise "rely too much on each other" for companionship, etc.

That said, personally I find the very idea of separating kitties "so they can't rely on each other" to be kind of awful. IMO you want them to come to trust humans in their own good time, not via some feline variant of Stockholm Syndrome. My two tabbies (the first 2 of the litter I trapped and adopted in late 2009) were so very clearly terrified at first...I could not fathom keeping them apart. They would cry so desperately for one another even when I would take one into another room to give them a bath, etc. It was heart-wrenching, and I think they are much better off for having been left to play and snuggle together.

And all THAT said, the one thing I wish I had done when my guys were tiny was expose them to more visitors. My partner and I are introverted geeky types who don't have people over very often, and thus, while our cats act pretty much like normal domestic cats when it's just the two of us humans here, they are still apt to run and hide whenever someone comes to the door. Usually Cora (the boldest of the sibling-trio) will come out and start showing off her acrobatic skills once she's been able to scope out the guests from a distance, and Shadow (one of the boys) will come out IF he knows he'll get treats, but most visitors won't even see Brodie as he will find the smallest, darkest part of the house he can get to and shove himself into it until the interlopers are either gone or asleep.

So, to sum up, NO, don't separate your kitties! They need to learn feline social skills (cats removed from littermates too early tend to be the ones that develop "only cat" complexes and bitey tendencies), and the fact that they tend to "team up" and run away when approached when together is not indicative of anything bad. Cats aren't humans and I don't think it's useful to anthropomorphize them too much, but contrary to common opinion they ARE actually somewhat social animals, especially when raised in a safe/indoor environment with other animals (which allows them to grow up without developing the degree of wariness they'd need to survive in the wild). Thus, when a kitten runs off to play-wrestle and tear around the house with a sibling, that's not too different from little humans running off with their same-age peers to climb trees and ambush each other with Nerf darts (but still coming home for dinner, as your cats will too!).

Meanwhile, though, if your goal is to help them grow up to be less nervous than they might otherwise be around visitors and unfamiliar sounds/smells/experiences, the best way to do that is to (gently) introduce as much variety as possible into your home. My partner's parents have managed to effortlessly socialize a number of cats (the feral colony I got my guys from is in their neighborhood) just by having them in the house, which is very high-traffic and gets people coming in and out of all shapes, sizes, ages, etc. Some kitties may still grow up to be shy hiders, but even so, remember that this is a perfectly normal, species-appropriate variant of feline personality and doesn't mean you did anything "wrong". And it sounds so far like your little ones are well on their way to a long happy life in your home!
posted by aecorwin at 10:46 AM on July 16, 2011

I grew up with four kittens whose mother had them after we took her in as a stray (the old "Trojan cat" trick!) and they were perfectly fine. They got along with people and with each other at least as well as any cats I've ever met, and they were together (and handled by people) from the moment they were born. (The mama cat came and got me and meowed until I followed her, and then led me to where she was going to have the kittens. Immediately after having them, she cleaned them up and then carried them out to me one at a time like, "Here - I made these for you." I was 12 then (36 years ago), and it's still the neatest thing that's ever happened to me. I had a similar experience with (another) stray cat I took in a few years ago. She had 3 kittens, and they all still live here with me. They're just as normal (or abnormal, depending on your outlook on cats) as any other cats I've known. So I'd say (as others have) just keep them together, keep loving them and playing with them, and they'll be fine. Good luck!
posted by Death by Ugabooga at 5:05 PM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

First off I agree with everyone who says "give them more time". These kinds of transitions, especially with feral kittens, are just going to take time.

However, I also have to agree with amtho. Clicker training *really* works. Don't think that just because cats are cats, they can't (or shouldn't) be trained to come, stay, jump up, get down, etc... The simplest command to teach them is to come to the clicker and this is a highly valuable safety skill that has already prevented ours from bolting out the door and/or escaping from the yard a few times.

Our own cat was a feral kitten who was socialized by another family. We took him in at ~18 months. Clicker training served 3 purposes - it taught him his (new) name, as we re-named him when we took him, it served to calm him down dramatically when we had guests over, and it gives him an interesting "job" to do and look forward to.

He was initially a skittish cat and would hide whenever new people came to the house. Once we started "showing him off" by demoing his clicker training when we'd have a small group of friends over, he began to really blossom as a friendly, well adjusted, well behaved social cat.

I think clicker training could work well with your pair to help smooth their socialization transition. Cats are pretty damn smart. They just learn very differently from dogs, and I think most people don't get that. In my experience, if you're training more than one at a time, they may even begin to "compete" with each other and progress all the more quickly for that.

Anyway I think for your pair clicker training could serve as a focus to calm them down and help teach them some helpful social / coping skills around humans. One of the biggest breakthrus for ours was to teach him the pair of "jump up" and "get down". Now that he's learned what's appropriate to "jump up" on, and he has a couple of cat perches/trees in the house that are "his only", he no longer counter surfs, jumps on the tables, etc. because he has learned to associate counters and the kitchen table with "get down", but never "jump up".

He's also learned that guests aren't a threat; they're actually fun to be around because he usually gets to do a little show for them, get treats, and be petted. Positive reinforcement FTW.

Also despite being a well socialized adult cat who was friendly at his foster home, ours hid for a solid 3 weeks when we took him in, and we let him. I think there's always going to be a little bit of that feral paranoia complex in his personality, and cats in general really don't relish changes in routine. We'd coax him out from under the bed with treats when it was dinnertime, but we didn't foist ourselves on him until he was ready. Eventually he relaxed and started hanging out more with us, and we were able to start training him for reals.
posted by lonefrontranger at 12:45 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

interesting - i'll have to look into the clicker training, it sounds like it works really well. i worry about the cats getting out of the house, so it sound like just the ticket. it's also good that it seems to work on much older cats.

in the meantime, yesterday was a hard day as we had guests over with their own little kids. i think my younger daughter and theirs must have ended up scaring the cats because i found them huddled behind a box in the corner of the room. mind you they were peacefully sleeping but they must have felt they had to get away from them at some point and made a retreat.

today has been much better, though. this afternoon the skittish one was sleeping under the bed while the better socialized one was sleeping on the bed. i was able to pick up the scaredy cat and pet and hold him. he responded very well even in the presense of his sister, and didn't run away when i put him down. so maybe he's getting used to us.
posted by joeblough at 4:20 PM on July 17, 2011

so just a followup, i think the male cat was just not well socialized to begin with and i think he's just going to be a fraidy cat for his whole life. the female cat continues to be a "people" cat but when guests come she still gets scared and hides, despite being in a room upstairs far from all the activity.

otherwise they are doing well and the female cat does not seem to have regressed too much, if at all.

i might try some of those Composure treats on the male cat, or maybe those drops that are supposed to have a calming effect...
posted by joeblough at 11:46 AM on July 24, 2011

haha! the cats exchanged personalities at some point and now the boy kitty is very friendly and not afraid of being approached. the girl kitty will now sometimes run if you try to pet her, but not always. just today they both fell asleep on me while i was taking a nap.

thanks to everyone who said "cats are weird" because, boy are they, and how.
posted by joeblough at 6:33 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

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