Socialization of cats is a relatively new idea for most people, except for breeders and cat show devotees. What is socialization? Why would we socialize a cat? Is it necessary?
Socialization of cats refers to introducing them to places, people, things, other animals, etc., in a way that creates no fear of such things. We do so in an attempt to raise a self confident cat and lessen any handling issues in the future. It is necessary, but rarely performed. It helps to erase fears of any new stimuli as well.
Most of our cats live quietly in our homes and do not go out except to visit the vet. Unfortunately, that creates suspicion and fear. Some cats are social enough to visit when friends come over, but many run and hide. Socialization of kittens not only negates the fear, but increases brain development (for more information, see books page, history/evolution/biology). Kittens can easily be socialized to other animals, people, medical procedures/physical exam, vacuum cleaners and a myriad of other things.
Kitten socialization can begin as early as two weeks of age, providing mama cat will allow handling. Cuddling kittens creates a positive association with people. During the first several weeks after birth, kittens should be introduced to many people, animals, and other sights and sounds. Once kittens have received their first set of shots, they can enter Kitten Kindergarten. Here they are introduced to more handling, other kittens and proper social play, training to accept physical exams, medical procedures and grooming to name a few. Each of these exercises is accompanied with treats of baby food or canned kitten food to create positive associations. Care givers are encouraged to continue these exercises at home. Many veterinarian offices offer Kitten Kindergartens. If there isn't one near you, you can begin your own. Ask your veterinarian if you can bring the kitten by for "social" visits. Technicians or veterinarians can perform mock physical exams/medical procedures, provide affection, treats and good experiences. Do this once a week for several weeks, then drop back to once monthly. As the kitten becomes a cat, visit at least twice yearly. One visit can be the annual exam, the other a social visit. In the meantime, practice the physical exam procedures with your kitten/now cat at home to continue good results. A couple of other good socialization efforts include visiting the local pet store with kitty in the carrier and going for walks. Walks can be either once leash-trained or in a pet stroller.
Adolescent or adult cats can be socialized as well, but caution should be used. If kitty is very timid, the socialization process will need to be slow with liberal use of positive associations (using positive reinforcement). Start by having a friend come over to your home and help with simple exercises. Sit in a room, calmly talking. The quiet may draw kitty out, but it may be necessary for the friend to sneak some treats to kitty's location. With care and patience, kitty will begin to trust that individual and enjoy the visits, ultimately coming out to visit while the friend is visiting. Expand this training with more people over time. Socialization of adults IS possible, but requires much patience and care. Proceeding too quickly can worsen kitty's fears.