Socializing Feral Kittens

What is a feral kitten?

A feral kitten is a kitten born in the wild with no previous human contact. A kitten that is born on the street could be feral by 5 weeks of age. If the mother is fearful of humans, she will teach her kittens at an early age to be fearful. You could start out with the fiercest of kittens, but if they are young and you are patient and can spend the time, they will most likely tame down and become adoptable kittens.

How does a feral kitten act?

Feral kittens can be hissing, spitting, lashing out or huddled up and hidden in a very small corner. They can be slightly scared or extremely terrified. And they can be intimidating even when tiny.

What do I need to foster feral kittens?

To start out the taming down process, your most important tool would be your cage and an appropriate place to keep it. A smaller cage is key, so that reaching in is easy for you. You don’t want the kittens to be able to run away from you.

Setting up the cage in a quiet room is ideal. A bathroom, laundry room or an extra bedroom are good choices. Additionally, being able to leave a television on or a radio with soft music can be quite helpful to kittens that are getting used to voices and activity.

Set up your cage with a blanket, puppy pad or towel on the wire floor. These will need to be changed regularly! Place bedding in one corner of the cage and litter box in the other corner. Food and water towards the front of the cage. A large sheet to cover the cage and you should be set. The sheet will help the kitten to feel like he is more in a CAVE than a cage . . . this will become his “safe spot”.

How much time will it really take each day?

When kittens arrive, give them a day to calm down and adjust to their new surroundings. During this time, cover the cage completely with a sheet or blanket to help them feel extra secure.

After the first day, uncover the front of the cage. A lot of time is needed, the more often you visit, the more accustomed to you they will get, and the more attention (hopefully) they will want!

Being with your kitten or kittens several hours a day is important.

Proper Handling

It is important to be cautious with kittens, because out of fear they can inflict some painful bites and scratches. Try to avoid being bitten or scratched. Accidents may happen, however, and you must remember that if a kitten bites you, it is out of fear not malice.

If you are bitten, clean and disinfect the bit area immediately!

To begin kitten socialization, TAKE KITTEN OUT IN A SMALL, SECURE ATEA ONLY. MAKE SURE ALL WINDOWS AND DOORS ARE SHUT.

To pick up a feral kitten, wrap your hand in a thick towel and “scruff” the kitten (hold the loose flesh on the back of the neck). Talk with a soft voice and use minimal eye contact. Do not stare at your kitten or show your teeth – this is perceived as a predatory act and will be very scary for your kitten. While holding the scruff with one hand, wrap the towel around the kitten with the other hand. A SECURE GRIP ON THE SCRUFF IS ESSENTIAL! This is what we call a Burrito wrap.

Wrapping a frightened kitten in a towel while you pet it helps it feel secure while getting it used to being held and touched. Pet the kitten on the head and ears with your hand coming at it from behind. Many kittens will flinch at a hand coming toward its face. Face kitten away from you if you need to.

Continue to talk in a low voice, and rub their ears and neck in hopes of getting them to relax and eventually to purr.

Once you have gotten a feral kitten to purr, you’ve reached your first milestone, and you can be proud! Continue to hold them, pet them, talk to them and love them. The more socialization they receive from you the better companions they will make.

Kittens need to be handled frequently. In addition to socialization times, try to reach in and pet kittens every time you walk by their cage. This takes only a few minutes but can have a dramatic impact on how fast your kittens tame. Using dangly feather toys and wands can be a great way to coax your kitten to interact with you and keeping kitten in a very small space or in the cage will prevent them from retreating to a hiding spot.

Food can play an essential role in kitten socialization. Offering small bits of canned food from your hand can make kittens begin to associate pleasant treats with your hand and they become less fearful.

What else do you need? Patience!

You will know your kittens feel safe and secure and trust you when they come to the front of the cage when you enter the room (instead of hiding in the corner). They may also call for you, showing they want to be picked up.

DO NOT allow your kittens the run of a large room unless they exhibit this kind of trust. Play with your kittens. Use kitty teasers and dangle toys. Also, keep toys in their cage so kittens will be able to play when you are busy. Never use your hands as play toys and discourage kittens from biting and scratching. If they become rough, stop playing immediately and ignore them for a few minutes. If they are playing inappropriately, redirect their play to toys. NEVER hit or spank a kitten. This teaches them to fear human hands.

Adoptable kittens

Purr when you hold them
Don’t resist being held (unless they want to get down and play)
Come to you for play, attention, food, etc.
Can be approached without running away

With as much competition as we have out there for good homes, it is important that our kittens are as social as possible in order for them to be placed.
Throughout the years we have found that even placing a kitten that is extremely shy and
“may” bond with one person isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the kitten, the adoptive family or our organization. Why? Because they are either returned to us or we hear that they are living life under a bed, in a closet, or running from the members of their adoptive family. If the cat is returned to us, then we have an extremely timid ADULT cat that is even more difficult to place than when it was a cute kitten.
It is important for the Foster Parents as well as the Foster Coordinator to be realistic about their kitties.

Unadoptable kittens

Are uncomfortable being held, cringe when you pet them
Run away when you approach them
Run and hide when they are taken out of their cage
Hiss when approached

If your kittens are exhibiting the “unadoptable traits” they need further cage socialization.

If after 3 weeks of cage socialization your kittens still do not exhibit any of the adoptable kitten traits, then your Foster Coordinator needs to be notified so alternate arrangements can be made.
Depending on the age of the kitten when it came in to the Adoption program, progress may NEED to be achieved sooner.

What if I’m not making good progress after 2-3 weeks?

Some kittens will socialize very quickly. Others will take much more time and patience on your part. If you have more than one kitten from a litter, it is sometimes necessary to separate them.

This is difficult to do because our natural tendency is to want to keep them together. However, sibling kittens will bond with one another and what we want them to do is bond with a human. If the taming down process is not coming along within the first 2-3 weeks (meaning you still cannot pick up a kitten and have it relax or purr) then it may be time to consider separating the kittens. If feral kittens are not progressing socially and are not separated, there is a chance that they will not tame down .

Remember that separation is temporary and the kittens can be reunited once they are socialized.
Sometimes, feral kittens don’t tame down.
It is important to be realistic and understand that you kitten may be older than you first thought, or more feral.

When we get kittens in, often times they are sick and underweight, making us think they are younger than they actually are. Sick kittens are usually easier to handle, and in some cases the better they feel the more feral they become.

A plan needs to be in place if the kittens don’t tame down . . .
Return to their Colony?
Relocation?

Re-releasing into the colony where they came from or relocating is NOT a bad option for our kitties. First of all, it is what they were born into. It is what they know and are comfortable with. Feral cats live a perfectly happy life when altered and fed daily. And, we can be just as selective with our feral cat relocation homes as we are with our tame cat/kitten homes.

Good rules of thumb –
Don’t try to push it if they are too old.
Don’t overwhelm a foster with too many kittens at once.
Insist that guidelines be followed.

For successful socialization we suggest the following guidelines:

Confine in cage
Approach often with food
Wrap and hold in a towel
Play radio/TV
Have both female & male friends visit
Speak softly, move slowly
Be PATIENT
Try to be with kittens AT LEAST an hour in the AM and an hour in the PM

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