From feral to friendly: socializing kittens
Not every kitten that comes through OAR’s foster program is cute, cuddly and eager for human attention. Some are hissy, spitty, growly little balls of fur who need some extra attention and love to prepare them for adoption. It’s not an overnight transformation; socializing feral kittens is a big commitment, requiring time and patience, but there’s nothing more rewarding than helping these little ones become affectionate and loving companions.
Here are some socialization tips courtesy of Alley Cat Allies (www.alleycat.org):
- Keep kittens in a room that can be closed off, like a bathroom or spare bedroom. Set up a cage for them inside the room. This will give you easy access and won’t give them an opportunity to hide in a hard-to-reach spot. This small space will also calm them and allow them to easily find their food, water, and litter, while keeping any pets or small children away.
- Provide a safe zone or “den,” such as a small box, in the kittens’ cage. This hiding place provides security, and gives them a way to feel comfortable and not threatened.
- Use the proper cage to confine the kittens. The cage should be large enough to hold the den, food and water dishes, a litter box, and soft, comfortable bedding.
- Make sure that room is kitten-proofed, so if the kittens do escape, they will still be safe. You don’t want them to be able to crawl under doorways or furniture or into vents — anywhere that is difficult for you to reach, or is dangerous for them.
- Give kittens an initial two-day adjustment period after trapping before you begin holding them (this may take longer depending on the kittens’ comfort level)
- Move slowly and speak softly around the kittens. If you wear shoes indoors, consider slippers or socks around the kittens. Don’t play loud music or musical instruments.
- Don’t keep the kittens confined away from the household action. Leave a TV or radio on so they become accustomed to human voices and sounds. If exposure to other pets is not an issue, set the whole crate in a busy living room with a TV playing.
- For young kittens, a ticking clock wrapped in a towel sounds like a mother cat’s heartbeat and is very soothing.
- Kittens will respond to positive experiences. Reward positive behaviors and prevent negative experiences like scolding or confrontations with other pets.
- Gauge each kitten’s ability to learn and become accustomed to you. Evaluate each individually and don’t go by set rules.
- Spitting, hissing, and hiding are all expressions of fear; be patient and do not mistake these signs for aggression.
- If a litter of kittens are slow to socialize, consider separating them. Isolating the kittens forces them to rely on people. If you can’t, make sure you spend quality time alone with each one. Litters can be put back together after a short adjustment period.
Socializing with food
- Food is the key to socialization. Providing the kitten with food creates an incentive for the kitten to interact with you and forms a positive association, ensuring that she connects you with the food she loves so much.You may keep dry kitten food out all day. When you feed wet food, stay in the room while the kittens eat it, so they associate you with food and begin to trust you.
- If the kittens are very timid, try to first give them food on a spoon through the cage.
- Over time, gradually move the food plate closer to your body while you sit in the room, until the plate is in your lap and the kittens are comfortable crawling on you to get to it.
- Pet and handle the kittens for the first time while they are eating, so they have an incentive to stay put. Start petting around the face, chin, and behind the ears and work up to petting all over.
- Gradually work up to holding kittens, making sure to reward them with some canned cat food or chicken-flavored baby food on a spoon. Human baby food, especially chicken flavor, is a special incentive for kittens. (Make sure the baby food has no onion—I t’s toxic to cats.)
Socializing with Touch and Play
- All young kittens should be picked up often to be petted, brushed, and played with so they are used to this behavior when they grow up.
- If you haven’t separated the kittens, take time to socialize each of them individually. Handling them away from the group can speed up the socialization process by making them more dependent on you.
- Devote about two hours per day for successful socialization. You can do a few long sessions or several shorter sessions.
- Get down to the kittens’ level and play with them; particularly kittens eight weeks and younger.
- Hold the kittens as much as possible. Make sure they are close to your body so they feel your body warmth and heart beat. This is especially productive after they have eaten, so they associate you with the food and the cuddles.
- Use toys to entice kittens to play at around three to four weeks.
- If a kitten is particularly feisty, papoose her in a towel with only the head out and hold her.
- After kittens are comfortable enough with you to fall asleep on your lap or purr in your presence, they can move from the initial confinement space to a larger, kitten-proof room.
Introduce New Friends
- The goal is to socialize the kittens so that they are comfortable around all people and pets and will be happy in their new homes, so introduce them to new some faces!
- As long as all are healthy, you can introduce kittens to an adult socialized cat.A neutered tom will likely play and groom the kittens, which helps the socialization process.
- Introduce kittens to as many people as you can to adjust them to strangers and unexpected circumstances.
- If there are other friendly animals in your household, exposing kittens to them will only help the kittens' socialization.
- Even a scratch from a kitten can hurt. Make sure you know how to properly handle feisty kittens!
- Aggressive feral kittens can hurt you badly if you are not careful. Wear gloves or protective clothing if you feel it is needed.
- Sometimes you have to scruff kittens by the back of their neck to gain control. To safely scruff a kitten, use your entire hand and gently but firmly grasp the fur on back of neck without pinching, pull the cat up, and immediately support her hind legs.