A feral kitten has never had previous exposure or very little exposure to humans and has likely engaged in minimal contact with humans. Their mind does not see a human in any one way that we can relate to. Seeing a human is routine for us, but to them, we might as well be a 20 foot alien. A feral kitten will often avoid contact with humans and will usually decide to hide, hiss, or bite out of a natural fear response. You can read the body language of a kitten or cat to determine if they are scared or comfortable with humans. In this article, I am going to go through ways to socialize your feral kitten and tips that may help you care for them in every other facet of their life.
Feral kittens are often found in isolated areas such as factories or abandoned houses where there is little foot traffic or threat to their existence. A feral kitten can also be found where food is in plentiful supply, such as behind restaurants or in dumpsters when it is dark outside. I have seen my fair share of feral kittens behind Dominoes and Pizza Hut. It is important to note that feral kittens survive by instinct, and that instinct does not involve walking up to a human and blindly trusting them to take care of them. A feral kitten is often observed for the first time as she starts to wander away from mom in the weaning stages.
Ears that are pointed backward, swishing tail, dilated pupils, and hiding in the litter box are common signs of fear in a confined feral kitten, or any fearful kitten for that matter. Scared kittens often hide in their litter box since it contains their scent. A litter box is a security item to a feral kitten, just like a blanket may be a security item for a scared child. Fear should never be confused with aggression in feral kittens because not every fearful kitten is aggressive and vice versa. There is no way to punish the fear out of a kitten as they do not understand punishment.
A feral kitten is essentially a wild animal, so she is not born liking humans by any stretch of the imagination. Most kittens will hiss and spit when confronted by people. A feral kitten will act ferociously while in fight or flight mode but is typically just scared and needs to feel safe from what she perceives as a threat. We are giants to her if you start to think about the difference in our size. Taming is entirely possible but can be time-consuming and is a very engaged process, depending on the age of the kitten.
Socialization of feral kittens is less successful the longer they are allowed to stay in the wild without any sustained contact with humans. Kittens taken away too young can be vulnerable to disease, which can make it tricky since containment is essential for the taming process. Trained foster parents with the experience to open up their home to feral kittens is ideal for them to thrive. A shelter environment is not a good idea because of disease potential and the fact that staff usually never have the kind of time to devote to them.
Under eight weeks of age is ideal for effective socialization by almost any individual with some cat experience, while a kitten over that age can be troublesome for novices to turn around. The critical socialization window for a kitten is between 2 and 8 weeks of age. Kittens that are likely to tame quickly should be placed in suitable adoptive homes or with apprentices to allow the seasoned experts more time to spend with kittens that are slower to tame down or are being more resistant to handling. I like to place tougher kittens with experts rather than placing them with the kittens that would be a better fit for a newcomer to the world of feral kitten taming.
Kittens begin to transition from complete dependence on the mother cat to complete independence around 6-8 weeks old, give or take a few weeks, depending on the individual. The mother’s milk will no longer provide the nutrition that they need to thrive as they age. This is the optimal time where food can be used as a bribe and primary motivator for interacting with humans. These kittens are biologically predisposed to learn new habits, but they can also be very reluctant to give up any lessons that they have learned up until this point in time.
All life experiences and new impressions that your feral kitten is exposed to at this point are at absolute warp speed. It is sometimes a matter of how fast you can teach him new experiences and associations so that you can hopefully rewire or restructure how he feels about humans in general. Designing a detailed plan to swoop in and capture a feral kitten without any delay once you notice him is critical. Once fear is ingrained, it can be tough to change his mind about it.
The best tip I can give at the very beginning is to always end on a positive note. Back up to the previous stage of socialization if they freak out and try again if you feel like it is not going well. Balance both challenge and reward at all times for your feral kittens. Do not be afraid to jump back on the horse and always be open to trying something new. I encourage even seasoned experts to always think about new strategies and tools they can utilize for socialization. Every step of improvement during your kitten’s life is going to be a large transition. Going from being wild to being brought into your home is the most significant transition ever.
Five Rules Of Socialization
- Cat-Like Perspective
Not every single cat that comes in hissing and carrying on is going to be feral. I urge every animal-control-run facility and humane society to realize how much stress, fear, and anxiety a cat can potentially go through when being transported from the outside to an unknown location with unfamiliar surroundings. It would be just like a human being abducted from a barbecue cookout and being brought to an alien spaceship. Their world has literally been flipped upside down at that point. The fear of a situation like this can often rival the fear that a feral cat displays.
In the months to come, you will be assuming the role of a surrogate parent to a feral kitten or perhaps even a litter of feral kittens if you choose to take on this task. Maybe you have already taken on this monumental task and are reading this article to get started socializing feral kittens or simply because you need some moral support. Just remember not to overwhelm yourself with too many kittens, which can be easy to do. I started with one feral kitten in 2011 to make sure it was something I could handle before taking on an entire litter of feral kittens.
Summertime will undoubtedly be full of feral kittens that need the help of individuals who are fully committed to making a difference for these kittens. The techniques and tips you learn from this article will help you as you gain experience in taming feral kittens. (Please note that information may be repeated very briefly in a few sections.)
What Is Required To Socialize A Feral
A feral kitten can only be adequately socialized if the handler is experienced and has a thorough knowledge of the taming process from start to finish. You cannot afford to make very many mistakes if the kitten is older because it can delay the progress by up to one month every single time you push him over their limit or threshold of what he is comfortable with. Mistakes are much more forgiving when you have a younger kitten as opposed to an older kitten. Novices are best trained on relatively bombproof kittens, which are easier to tame. People with some experience can tame kittens that are younger than eight weeks.
The most common mistake in the beginning stages of socialization is allowing the kittens out of their cage too soon or moving too fast for them because you feel bad for them or think it would be beneficial. It is important to remember that the kitten does not know you from a predator in the wild just yet, so you will want to move slowly and with purpose; otherwise, your plans could go awry. The best time to socialize a feral kitten is before eight weeks old for the best results. The chance of successfully taming a kitten dwindles with each week of growth.
The entire process of taming down a feral can take one week, several months, or many months. Socialization could even take an entire year for older feral kittens. Sometimes you may just completely luck out, and other times the feral kitten you are attempting to socialize is extremely difficult. Adult cats can take a year or longer to become comfortable with just you and the household. There is no time frame to go by as each cat is different, so just do your best to estimate the potential for success given her background, history, and age, if it is known.
Rehabilitating a feral kitten requires patience, understanding, courage, and compassion. As previously stated, some feral kittens can be quickly socialized while other kittens will take months before they are able to be adopted. Assessing each kitten and maintaining individual logs on their progress will help you focus on areas of socialization that they are deficient or lacking in. Skills can be taught if you are not comfortable at any point in time. If you are not taming down the true hisser-spitters, then do not fret as every expert had to start somewhere in the field. Finding a mentor who can give hands-on instruction or performing research online can be invaluable.
The typical home for feral kitten taming should include at least one spare room that can be used for isolation, the willingness to open your heart to one less fortunate, and being okay with using a cage for the purpose of confinement. This is just the bare minimum, but you can always go above and beyond that. Having both interactive toys, plus leave-out toys, and stocking up on baby food and other high-value treats will be very helpful in every stage of socialization. Battery-operated toys may prove to be helpful, too. I typically prefer homes that do not have small children. All the work you have done can easily be reversed by a child’s crazy and spontaneous activity throughout the day.
Some feral kitten tamers will have a slew of medications for health conditions and supplements on hand, along with a plethora of different brushes and combs for a variety of hair coats and temperaments. Being well equipped is the first step to success, in my opinion. This can differ from person to person and what they are comfortable with or have been trained to work with. I am a vet tech, so I have nearly every medication I would need for common health conditions.
1. Simple Tips To Trap Kittens
Trapping a feral kitten requires that you have to be patient and calculating. You will want to set out a trap and secure it with a lock and identification card so that it is not stolen. The best spot to place a live trap is under or behind a bush where the kitten is most likely to visit since she does not want to be seen. This happens to be an excellent place for preventing theft of a trap since it is low traffic.
Do not have the live trap set to close when the kitten steps on the trigger plate for a few days so that she can associate the trap with good things, like tasty canned food. Start with food at the beginning of the trap and gradually move it toward the back of the trap over a few days. This will help her perceive the trap as safe. You may choose to have multiple traps if you are trying to trap numerous cats. If they are not entirely sure about entering the trap, then strategically placing a cover around the trap except for the front can help with that. A trap cover may also prevent them from stealing food from the back of the trap when you finally do bait it for trapping.
You will want to make your move after about three days of feeding the kitten in or around the live trap. This can be modified to fit your schedule or her schedule. Place a trail of tuna juice leading up to the live trap before placing food behind the trigger plate in the trap. Place your most smelly food on a small plastic plate or on a scrap of paper. Prepare the trap and do not feed the kitten or any surrounding cats on the evening before the day of trapping, so the kitten has the motivation to enter the trap. You are going to hide the smelly food behind the trigger plate, which will force the door to close once the kitten steps on it.
If the kitten is too smart for the live trap, you can set some canned food on a small piece of newspaper, positioning it on the ground so that the rear end of the trap is on top of it. Set the cage on top of the small piece of newspaper, so the canned cat food is pushed through the rear end of the trap (area behind the trigger plate). This works best as the cage will close when the kitten steps on the trigger plate while trying to get the canned food out. Alternatively, you can get a trap that is easier for a small kitten to trip or a remote control trap.
If you are trapping a kitten that has not been weaned yet, then I really want you to make sure you get all of the kittens and the mother cat for safety reasons. You can set the second trap of a similar size, end-to-end against the first trap to trick a mother cat or another kitten into going into it in an effort to get close to the trapped one. Have the back of the second trap touching the end of the first trap, then put a large towel around the rest of the trap, so they have to go through the trap entry point to get anywhere near their loved ones.
It would be tragic if you left behind a kitten with no mother cat. Do not set any objects around the trap that can be harmful if they decide to ram the cage out of fear. It can be hard to treat a scratched or bleeding nose, for example. No stainless steel bowls or litter boxes are needed for the trapping process, as you should be checking the traps very often. You might want to throw a Feliway-sprayed towel over the cage so that the cat feels safe or a skirt designed to fit around the trap, which you can buy online or make.
You may need to get creative if all traditional and futuristic ideas fail. I have had to tie a 35-foot string around a water bottle before and use it as a prop to open up a humane box trap, then pull it when I saw a kitten enter. This is simply because some kittens are way too small to activate a cat trap, in which case having a kitten-sized trap would be great. In some situations, you may need to improvise just like I had to do because I do not routinely have a kitten-sized live trap with me or in the vehicle.
Do not leave any trapping location unattended for too long. Excessive heat, cold, or rain can become a significant risk factor for any trapped kitten. Predators like wolves or coyotes are another threat to a contained cat. It is for this reason I’m not particularly eager to do any trapping on very chilly days or days there is a heat advisory or winter storm advisory issued. Check the trap in 30-minute or 1-hour intervals, then disinfect the trap with bleach or Trifectant when you decide to trap again. Any disinfectant must sit for 10 minutes for it to be effective.
2. Housing The Feral Kittens
It is so important to remember that a feral kitten is often tethering on a fine line between fight, flight, and freeze when they feel threatened since they are both prey and predator at the same time. The shelter or rescue is never the right place for taming efforts due to stress, lack of time, infectious disease risk, and lack of enough resources. If the kitten has no safe spot to flee, then she will never relax enough to build up the trust or confidence she needs to approach us and will not likely become tame enough to be adopted.
We need to allow the kitten to approach us confidently and calmly on her own terms, which requires trust that is gained over time. Ignoring the kitten is sometimes the best option at the start. It can be frustrating at first when all you want to do is love on her and let her know it will be okay, but realize that trying to approach too quickly at first can cause some problems. Cats socialize themselves by their own free will and choice. Food, patience, and compassion help them make that choice.
There are more ways than I can write about the best place or best way to house your feral kitten because it all comes down to personal preference and what works best for you. All I can say for sure is that you will reap the most benefit from having a cage where you can get on the same level as the kitten without making her feel towered over at any time. We can appear as giants to them when standing or even sitting. Having a cage that allows you to sit with the kitten will enable you to bond with her on a deeper level.
The cage that you set up for your feral kitten should help encourage the kitten to come out of her shell while giving her the option of hiding when she is scared or perching up high when she needs to observe her surroundings from above to assure her that it is safe. Space to make the vital mind change from scared and barely trusting you to trusting you and confident is a necessity in confined cats. You want your kitten to explore and approach you out of self-interest rather than being forced to make that choice. Each kitten will need to make the decision not to be near you so they can gain the confidence to advance.
The best one level cat cage that I have personal experience with is at least 42x28x31 inches, which provides ample space for the cat and necessary care supplies. Midwest is an excellent brand of extra-large wire cages to purchase because they are both sturdy and easy to fold down. A cage too small can make the kitten feel trapped or cornered, which is the opposite of what we want. The best practice is to get the biggest cage within reason one that you can afford so you can customize it. The more space you provide, the more choices the kittens can make, and the more natural behaviors they can have the opportunity to display, like scratching and perching up high.
In a few rare instances, I have erected a 5×5 Masterpaws outdoor enclosure to keep a feral kitten or cat in during socialization. I use chicken wire to make a roof for the dog kennel. I intentionally make the enclosure large enough for a person to walk around in and stand completely upright. This can be particularly helpful if you do not have a great indoor space or if you do not have a safe place to install such an enclosure inside. The sunshine and fresh air can make a very noticeable difference for feral adults if you are not making any headway with one that you have been struggling with for a couple of months. Make sure you have everything you need with you when you walk in for the daily routine, especially with older ferals, which will benefit most from this setup.
Once they trust you, you can even have an outside enclosure to provide your feral kittens additional enrichment and playtime, switching them back and forth from it to their indoor enclosure. You may need to add or modify the enclosure so it is safe in all weather conditions, including snow, rain, and excessive heat. My absolute favorite enclosure is the Purrfect Playhouse manufactured by Purrfect Fence which is 5×7. This product is designed so cats cannot escape from it. Or you can rig up a dog kennel for feral kittens, but you will need to make sure it is made right to prevent cats from going through it – Masterpaws is the best manufacturer in that respect. Some dog kennels have gaps that are too big which will allow a cat to fit through the large gaps in the top, under the door or between the door. Chicken wire can be utilized to make a roof or to seal up large gaps in some enclosures that are meant for dogs.
Keep the room dark with several nightlights for him so that he can get around the cage safely for the first week or so when he is with you. You can alternate to having the lights off at night to give him a day and night cycle, which is very beneficial for cats, along with having a few night lights after the first week. I would like to have calm music playing and a Feliway diffuser to help calm the kitten down during his stay. Use coop cup bowls and hard to tip litter boxes so that the cage stays neat and tidy from day today. The very last thing you want to happen is for a feral kitten spill water everywhere or to tip over the litter box.
Classical music, especially harp sounds, have been proven to provide a myriad of behavioral benefits to scared or stressed out animals. I find that the I Calm Cat or Pet Acoustics music playing system is well-liked by both people and their kittens. Always knock on the door and verbally announce your presence in a calm and collected manner before entering so that they know you are coming in. Make a routine and stick by it since cats thrive when they are on a schedule that can be anticipated. I personally socialize my kittens at 7 am before work, 6 pm after work, and 10 pm before bedtime. You can make any schedule you like as long as it is consistent and makes sense.
I have been known for recommending the Midwest playpen or Amazon Basics playpen, which is basically a cattery on wheels and is three levels high. You can roll the cage anywhere you want or need from one day to the next for socialization purposes with minimal exertion. I would personally wheel my cage into the living room during television time or into my room when I am just chilling and playing a video game. The additional exposure to human activity is significant.
You will want to make the three-tier cage fun and inviting for your feral like you would a one level cage. I want you to harness the power of creativity. Customize the cage with hammocks that are secured with zip ties, scratch pads, several varieties of cat toys, covers, and a spot to hide. Alternatively, you can use an extra-large pop up playpen depending on the size of the kitten and of your house.
I like to use a Kitty Kasas Bedroom Cube (bought online), medium pet taxi with the door left off, or a Tomahawk Feral Cat Den (purchased online) for the kitten to hide in when they are being confined. These options work really well for at-home foster care just as well as it does at a shelter or rescue. You can transport the foster kittens to a vet visit or another area when they go into the hiding area to take a nap, which can reduce the stress for everyone involved and reduce the restraint needed to provide much-needed care.
Another option for the rescue or shelter type environment is a curtail, which is essentially a visual blocker – more important for pregnant feral cats than anything (picture is below). Pregnant feral cats can choose to abort their kittens if they get too stressed and start panting, which is not what you want. Sometimes they just need a day or two to adjust without the view of other cats or stimuli. I prefer to have a warm cover or shirt with my scent inside the cage so they can get used to my smell over time.
There are several important factors of setting up a successful feral cat cage for long term success. Incorporating a built-in scratchpad that connects with the cage will allow them to scratch and release pent up stress during the day. The hammock or raised bed will allow him to be up high so he can watch over his surroundings. It is essential for a cat to have vertical space so they can watch over their domain. Another general tip is to separate food, water, and litter boxes from each other. Some cats will choose not to eat or drink when the food and water are too close together due to the perception that the water can contaminate the food or vice versa.
One good recommendation for housing a kitten is to purchase an Oxford cloth playpen for when a feral kitten allows you to handle them, which is the pop-up playpen I mentioned earlier. This will be either a housing option for a small kitten or a playpen you transport them to for playtime. You can put him in from the top or push the playpen against the cage so he can walk straight in from the cage when he is done playing. Experimentation with what works best for you and your kittens is part of socializing them. What works well for one kitten may not work well for the next. This playpen opens up from the top or front, so it offers quite a bit of space for you to get in with the kitten. You can customize the area with toys and posts. Playpens are available at an array of different colors and sizes on Chewy.
The feral kitten may display a strong will to escape during the first few days while he adjusts to the indoors. Ensure every single room you use for your kitten is escape-proof, kitten proof, and fear-free. All cords should be covered, curtains should be up, and small objects your feral kitten could eat must be stashed away. Strings can resemble mouse tails and are often one of the primary dangers I see for curious kittens from day to day. Kittens are inquisitive and may be willing to do anything to escape, which could include getting stuck or ingesting something they shouldn’t. Make sure to eliminate any poisonous plant, such as those that are in the lily family.
To the best of your ability, block off any small hiding spots you cannot physically reach in order to avoid an emergency. Even a two-inch diameter hole can be dangerous, or a gap beneath a vanity can be counterproductive if you can’t see or touch the kitten. I typically use a Tomahawk Feral Cat Den in my cages, so I can easily clean the cage without introducing fear into the kittens by attempting to move them around from spot to spot.
Spot cleaning areas that are dirty, rather than thoroughly cleaning the cage, is going to be what you need to do. You will avoid wiping out all of their current scents, which can increase stress, and spot cleaning will help you save time for more important tasks. Allow 24 to 72 hours for your kitten to completely adjust before doing too much. Food can be left out for the first few days, so the cat knows that he is not going to be left to starve before going to the scheduled feeding method. Water is always left out for the kittens.
If the kitten does cause trouble or is too scared when he is out of the cage, then I like to use a laser light from a hidden location to get the kitten back into the cage. I will play for a minute beforehand, then slowly lure him as he chases the light back into his cage. Laser lights work well for attracting a cat into unfamiliar rooms because he is just having too much fun to realize he is charting into a new location. A long feather toy or fishing rod toy can be useful in these instances, too. It is like when you are having so much fun on a handheld phone that you forget all about where you are or the stress that is accompanied by moving into a new area. It reminds me of playing a handheld video game at a family reunion I really did not want to be at.
3. Evaluation and Medical Care
It is very unlikely that you will be able to complete a full medical workup on feral kittens, which would include a head to tail physical exam to detect any physical injuries or defects. You will likely find it impossible to look at their teeth to get an exact age. You will need to observe with your eyes and use your hands to palpate them only when they are comfortable with you. Implementation of minimally invasive techniques, paired with one use medications, is key as you do not want to ruin their trust by administering a medication every single day. The use of great-tasting pill pockets or a product like Capusline can help hide bad-testing medication. Canned food can be used for this purpose as well.
A full medical workup is often done when the cat is spayed or neutered and under sedation so that they do not remember anything that can be perceived as painful or fearful. Scruffing can be used, but as a last resort when it pertains to medical care. Surgery time is the perfect time for drawing blood for the feline leukemia test or to microchip them if that is something you want to do.
Home Again is now manufacturing a microchip that can give a temperature when scanned, which is infinitely useful. Most kittens under 6 months old do not have any life-threatening medical issues, as opposed to when they are 8 weeks or younger. Some of the most common problems you will encounter are listed below in no specific order.
You will want to make sure the kitten is not carrying any parasites, worms, or fleas back to your current cats as you could have a flea infestation faster than you can snap your fingers or blink your eyes. Revolution is my favorite flea medication as it can be applied topically on the back of the neck to kill ear mites, fleas, and roundworms in one dose. Sometimes a second dose is needed to eliminate hatching adults.
Capstar crushed into the food can be implemented if the kitten cannot be touched or is not old enough for topical Revolution when you have a look at them. One-half pill can be given to a 4-8 week old kitten per the manufacturer if they are not yet 2 lbs for a full pill. Capstar will kill all fleas in 6 hours but will not confer long-lasting or residual protection, so a topical should also be applied when possible.
I would do everything in my power to avoid a flea bath since it is minimally effective, very stressful, and risky to all people involved. You can bathe the kittens in Dawn dish soap (3-4 drops in water) if they can be handled. A small litter box or tote can be used as a receptacle for bathing. A flea comb may be dipped in warm Dawn dish soap and used to comb out flea eggs, flea dirt, and adult fleas. This is another minimally invasive and effective strategy for kittens.
Revolution will treat ear mites and roundworms with just one dose, so it is a beneficial medication. Two treatments are recommended, although I often find that only one dose is sufficient in 90% of cases. A simple case of ear mites can be identified by looking in the ear for dark brown cerumen. A yeast infection will be treated differently from ear mites. Yeast is usually identified by observing yellow discharge that is often accompanied by a nasty smell and itchiness. Yeast infection can also be suspected if Milemite or Revolution is not taking care of a painful or itchy ear.
Milbemite is another one time dose for kittens, if it can be applied with little restraint. Milbemite can be quite costly, so I reserve it for terrible cases of ear mites. Tresaderm is best avoided as cold ear drops for 14 days can degrade any trust you may have established with the kitten. Onsurnia as a one-time treatment is very effective with ear infections if your kitten is found to have an ear infection rather than ear mites. If you find that you have to wait to treat ear mites – it is not the end of the world (even though it is a little uncomfortable and painful) unless it is likely to cause a hematoma. An ear swab collected during surgery can identify the extent of the infection or the culprit responsible.
If the kitten is sick with an upper respiratory infection, it is recommended to ask your vet about injectable convenia. Feline herpes virus infection is the most common upper respiratory infection, which can cause watery eyes, sneezing, coughing, lack of appetite, and lethargy. Convenia will provide about 14 days of antibiotic therapy in one shot since you do not want to ruin your socialization sessions with daily drops or oral medications that are bad tasting. Antibiotics have no direct impact on viruses but can help prevent secondary infections.
Doxycycline or azithromycin are two prevalent and effective drugs that are used for upper respiratory infections. Convenia is not anywhere near the best antibiotic for upper respiratory infection, so it may not work for you. Doxycycline and azithromycin are often the medication of choice for tame cats who have an upper respiratory infection. It is thought that azithromycin has increased efficacy against herpes virus infections that have a negative impact on the eye. Your vet may suggest these be added to food instead of an injection.
An eye ointment can sting, so some vets suggest just giving a convenia injection or adding an oral antibiotic to the food rather than applying an ointment. Using a more gentle eye ointment is the route you want to take if a systemic antibiotic is not doing any good. Vetropolycin is an excellent alternative to Terramycin because Terramycin can often cause a burning sensation in the treated eye for a small amount of time.
Even if you do have to start a less-than-enjoyable treatment plan, an eye infection can never be neglected because it can lead to vision loss or scarring of the cornea. Each cat will need an individual tube of eye ointment, or you will need to make sure the tip of the tube does not inadvertently touch the eye of any other kitten to avoid contamination of that tube when used for more than one cat. You may use a Q-tip to apply the medication to avoid contaminating a tube. The best time to administer eye medication with a Q-tip is while the cat is resting on your lap or sleepy so that minimal restraint is needed.
Diarrhea can be very life-threatening, so I recommended immediate evaluation and treatment of all affected cats. Most veterinarians start with strongid as it is a cheap solution for roundworms and can be administered with little effort. Adding this medication to food is simple as it is relatively good tasting and hard to distinguish from the food, which is not often the case with other some other medications used to deworm cats.
If the kitten does need to be treated for coccidia, I recommend the use of an oral medication called ponazuril that can be easily hidden in his canned food as a one-time treatment. Albon is typically used on a 10-day treatment schedule for tame cats due to cost, but you can forget about that with a feral kitten because it will taste bad and can cause them to foam at the mouth. You do not need the feral kitten to build that negative association with you just to save money.
I prefer Panacur to be added in the food rather than metronidazole for giardia, which is very bitter tasting and is often avoided when added to food. I do not think I have ever tricked a cat into taking metronidazole or flagyl but often have great luck with getting a cat to willingly eat a portion of food with Panacur added. It is fortunate for rescuers that giardia in cats is very rare, so running a test for it is often a waste of time and money. I think a giardia test should only be considered if bloody stool is observed and other possibilities are ruled out for diarrhea.
There is a myriad of causes for diarrhea above and beyond parasites (which include gut imbalance which would require digestive enzymes or probiotics) rare infections like rotavirus, and so on. A very rare parasite or protozoan-like trichomonas is rarely the cause of diarrhea but can be investigated if you do not find the answer you are looking for. Diagnostics may be needed if probiotics, digestive enzymes, or changing to a gentle formula are not curative.
W/D or another Science Diet formula with fiber is handy for diarrhea and can be the simple answer to a persistent problem. A/D is another favorite since it is a predigested diet and is less invasive on the gut if the diarrhea is suspected to be the result of poor food absorption. One dose of penicillin G injection or amoxi-drops with probiotics for young kittens has been found to be very useful for diarrhea, too. You will want to mix the current food with the new food when switching to or from any diet.
Ringworm will treat on its own rather than trying to force the sour-tasting medication down a cat’s throat or dealing with lime sulfur baths, which you can also forget about with a feral kitten. It takes about 3 weeks with or without medication for it to heal. Allowing ringworm to heal on its own is sometimes the kinder option. Some cats may not heal on their own and will need medication. Keep an active eye on them and make sure they get a negative culture prior to adoption. Extensive hair loss that is expanding from day to day definitely warrants oral treatment.
Ringworm is often seen around the ears, tail, feet, and face. The lesions are often itchy and scaly with little or no hair left at the site of infection. If you do choose to start an oral medication, then I recommend that you read up on the proper treatment of ringworm with an antifungal medication as some options are better than others. My favorite has always been itrafungol because I have seen a diagnostic cure in just one week for bad cases. It is usually given once a day for one week, then you skip a week before dosing once a day for another week. This is done for three full treatment cycles, at which time you obtain a sample for culturing the ringworm.
Ringworm can be very contagious to other kittens, so make sure to keep them separated so you do not have to spend a ton of money on treatment. The infection does not tend to spread to other adult cats very often in a household environment with little stress in contrast to a shelter, where it likely would due to increased stress. Utilizing a strong black light from a distance can usually tell you if a kitten has an active ringworm infection because the area will glow apple green. My favorite brand is the UV Beast for ringworm detection.
Depending on how much work is to be done at the vet, it might be advised to put the cat under a local anesthetic or a group of calming drugs such as a Gabapentin or Zylkene combination. As a disclaimer, I must tell you to only use medicines you have been taught how to use appropriately for any condition. Most calming drugs or supplements can be hidden in canned food or even baby food since they come in capsule form. Also, diluting the medicine in water would be more comfortable than shoving the pill down the throat of a feral kitten. When he is out and not aware of what is going on, you can treat him for everything under the sun.
The benefit of treatment should be balanced with the amount of trust you will lose with that medical procedure. If the medical condition is not life-threatening, then it can prove beneficial to wait until the spay/neuter surgery to have the previously mentioned procedures or more extensive procedures performed. Most medical problems in an older kitten can be delayed for a few weeks to a month or two without too much risk or worry. A younger kitten that is displaying any kind of distress or lethargy should see the veterinarian sooner rather than later.
Nothing replaces a thorough exam by a vet, which is advice coming straight from a vet tech. Veterinarians should be encouraged to follow minimally invasive techniques and fear-free strategies at each visit. Or you should find a vet that understands the unique challenges of taming and building a feral kitten’s trust. Ongoing forcible restraint and painful procedures can make it impossible to gain trust with a feral kitten.
For maximum immune support, it is crucial to feed a very nutritious food, such as Royal Canin or Science Diet, on a consistent basis. Stay away from grocery store brands, which can commonly cause diarrhea and often do not have quality ingredients that help the immune system operate at peak efficiency. Kitten food is recommended at least until six months old and preferred until one year of age before switching to adult cat food.
4. Tough Love Is My Mantra
You want to avoid leaving any cat food out for the kittens that have not been tamed yet under almost every circumstance. There are no free rides at my house when I am taming down a feral kitten. You do not want to lose your kitten’s only real motivation for trusting you and making milestone achievements. There is no magic spell when it comes to taming down feral kittens, only positive reinforcement and time. You want to save food as a reward for proper socialization and cooperation with taming. Water should be left out at all times for every kitten you care for.
Mealtime equals socialization time and trust. I like to schedule the feeding times throughout my day so that I can be with them while they eat. Run socialization periods at the exact same time each day to make a routine that they can expect and learn to rely on. I need the kitten to associate good things with me. The other benefit of doing this is to avoid overwhelming the kitten with one extensive socialization period, which could end on a negative note due to being so long. I can finish one socialization session on a bad note, but if I leave three more on a good note, then I am less worried. Usually, 3-4 socialization and feeding sessions per day work great. Small and frequent wins the race every single time.
You can work on your laptop, work on writing a story, read a book out loud, and even listen to music or watch a movie when you are around the kitten. Reading a book out loud can be one of the best activities to do as it will get the cat acclimated to your voice over an extended period of time without overwhelming her. You can even tell your darkest secrets to your kitten, and she will never tell anyone or judge you like a friend might. I am living proof that a feral kitten will never spill your secrets on social media.
This is all about getting your kitten subjected to new stimuli so that they will hopefully become very adoptable. It is unofficially accepted that a kitten is at the half-way mark when they start to purr for you and display body language that is consistent with feeling comfortable. Comfortable body language is ears erect, tail pointed upward and tingling slightly, and a relaxed body posture. Keep in mind that a kitten will purr even when she is scared, so you always want to look at the body language and what she is doing at all times in context. Watch for any signs of fear, like dilated pupils and flattened ears, that indicate the kitten still has a way to go.
One of the most important lessons that I teach people is that you need to stay flexible. Remaining versatile in your technique will allow you to find the kryptonite for breaking the ice that will allow your kitten to become the best version of himself. Find what works for you and the kitten, then move from there. Each litter of feral kittens is shockingly different, so keeping a log is important. Sometimes you will have a kitten that is failing to tame down because of the security that the rest of the litter confers. Shifting the dependence on to you can be a game-changer that often involves removing the kitten from the litter and housing him somewhere else.
Different people have different strategies that you will learn about during your journey of taming kittens. Sometimes you will find that there is no one right way of taming down a feral kitten and no code to crack. I will often choose to separate every kitten from each another or to put them all in the same cage, depending on their age, social status, gender, and so on. Females typically more tame slowly than males, for instance. On the other hand, having the most fearful kitten observe you petting another kitten with only good things happening can be infinitely valuable.
Observation of a good role model is one key component for the feral kittens to learn that people are not a threat to their well-being. I often let my own cat in to socialize with the feral kittens and to just spend time around them in general after the feral has been deemed healthy. Sometimes I am even amazed at the bond they build with each other once I allow the feral to come out. Most of the kittens I have worked with are great copycats.
5. Eating Off Fingers
Allowing kittens to eat directly off your fingers will help them overcome their fear of different hands reaching for them from different directions if you have some volunteers. Start contact with the kittens when they are hungry and interested in food. If a kitten ends up running away, then just entice him back with some food, which will allow him to forget about whatever initially scared him. Do not stop any session until the lousy experience is outplayed by a positive experience that makes the kitten comfortable and happy, if at all possible. Or you can just know when to fold and try again next time if that is not working.
You can attempt to spoon-feed the feral kitten while petting him if you do not feel safe using your fingers, or he is likely to bite. This can be just as effective–if not more effective–depending on the individual kitten. You are still shifting the dependence more towards you. You want to pet him one time, then try to progress to two, then three times, and so on without his trying to bite or scratch you while feeding him with the spoon. Eventually, you want to be able to pet him while he is not eating. At first, he may only nibble but will ultimately realize that licking is much more successful.
Counter condition the kitten with every physical pet accompanied by a spoonful of canned food or with a plate of canned food in front of him for continuous petting. The food should be fed to the kitten as you pet him so that he is distracted on the most positive part of the experience. It is good progress when you can do a continuous pet without his reacting to it. Shift to petting him without using food by petting him past the time he is finished eating the food, then try to pet them for a more extended amount of time from that point. If you are having trouble, you may also pet the kitten with the backside of your hand or a toothbrush as this accurately mimics the way a mother cat grooms her young.
6. Leading Onto Your Lap
You want to feed the kitten on a paper plate that you can move closer to you as he eats the canned food. Eventually, he might even step on your lap to eat (which would be great for getting him used to you) if you move to plate onto your lap very slowly. This strategy, as well as every other strategy in this article, is most effective when the kitten is tired and motivated by food rather than full and lacking motivation. Another way to get the kitten onto your lap is with spoon-feeding, as previously described, by slowly luring him onto your lap.
It may be common to see a kitten struggling with the fear of stepping onto your lap, which can be observed as the kitten is continually climbing forward and backward onto your lap. She may just start with one paw then slowly work towards putting both paws on your lap. This is relatively normal, and all you need to do is continually reintroduce the food and lure her back time and time again, like a good and accepting friend.
Getting the kitten to tolerate or enjoy grooming is a good idea when you are working on all of the key skills that you want to see in an adoptable kitten. I always say a well-rounded kitten is a more adoptable kitten. Grooming will help imitate the action of a mother cat and transfer parental love to you. You can use the previous technique I discussed using your hand in a backward motion or a toothbrush to make her feel comfortable.
They make brushes that are more gentle for reactive cats, such as the EquiGroomer for cats, which provides more of a massage than anything. You can start with that brush, then work towards something different as the kitten grows. I have used the EquiGroomer in cats with hyperesthesia (which are basically cats that react to almost anything because they are susceptible to everything) and in feral kittens with excellent results..
You can use a toy for luring the kitten onto or around your lap, then sneak in a pet every time he seems like he is too occupied to notice anything that you do. This works as a fantastic alternative to get a kitten used to being on your lap if the canned food method does not work for you.
7. Picking Up and Moving Kittens
There are several methods that you can use to move your kitten around and from spot to spot without scaring them or spooking them so much that they run and hide under the bed. Realize that in the wild, kittens are likely to only be picked up by a predator, so it will be quite a scary experience in the beginning for your kitten to be picked up. The method that you use will depend on their progress so far and what the individual kitten will allow. Working with the least fearful kitten first and moving forward to the most fearful kitten is beneficial in every facet of development.
You can start the lifting method after the kitten has become acclimated to regular petting and routine handling by you and maybe one other person if you choose, although it is not a requirement. You may want to use a towel or cover to assist with handling as it will increase the kitten’s security level and improve safety for you as the handler. Spraying the sheet with Feliway can enhance the kitten’s level of trust during this step. You would just gently wrap the cover around her to protect you and keep the kitten feeling secure.
I like to start this step by petting the kitten around her shoulders, head, and even under her belly after I have seen positive progress for a few days. Petting her on her stomach will desensitize her to this part of being picked up, even if you can do it just briefly. I like to start stroking an area of her body that she tolerates well, then slowly work my hand toward the spot that she is not familiar with, so it is not a shock to her when I touch her around that area. Future handling is less likely to frighten her if you take this route. Generally speaking, petting from her head and moving backward from there tends to work best since she is most comfortable being petted around the head area.
Nudging the kitten around one from side to another with your hand while he is eating can help acclimate him to touch and being manually moved. Almost any movement of your hand while he is preoccupied with eating or involved with something fun is beneficial. Another method I use is implemented by starting with two bowls of food a short distance from each other. Gently lift or scoot the kitten from one bowl to the other–very close to the ground at first. If this goes smoothly, then you can increase the distance of the dishes or increase height. Or you can go more slowly, so the kitten stays in the air longer. Get him acclimated to being picked up from the sitting position before you even think about picking him up while you are standing above him.
You always want to combine something positive with something tough for the kitten to do. One popular method is to have a small dish of food directly in front of her nose the entire time you are moving her from point A to point B. You can start to lift the kitten for one second, two seconds, and then three seconds while lifting the plate that she is eating from as you lift her. Some kittens will feel most reassured if they can hear your heartbeat or feel your body warmth.
Lifting kittens from a sitting position to a standing position without scaring them involves a series of techniques. I like to lift them up to somewhere they will get a reward directly afterward. I use a triple-decker cat cage with the top door open, so I can lift them from the floor to the canned food in the cage. I do this once or twice a day because it will make it easier for me to cage them at night if I have them running around. I will repeat the exercise if they do not advance in their tolerance of this procedure in an optimal period of time. You may choose to use baby food rather than canned food as it is more desirable. I use the highest value treats for the toughest tasks.
When you pick the kittens up, you want to avoid holding them too tightly or squeezing them toward your body. Holding them too close can make them feel trapped, which will result in the kitten’s associating pain or fear with being handled. You do not want to hold them so loosely that they will be dropped either. This is a part of the taming process that takes time to perfect. At first, you will not even be able to get one hand under the hindquarters as a kitten will likely kick out as this is foreign to him. In time, you will hopefully work up to using two hands to pick him up, just like you would a tame kitten.
Using a leather glove is sometimes necessary for more feisty kittens or kittens that tend to squirm. I like to use the ArmOR Hand Gloves as they are very flexible while maintaining a high level of safety against teeth and claws. If any of the kittens are having a tough time, then you can put her back in a safe place with a treat or tasty food scrap, then work up in duration from when the experience goes from positive to negative. For example, if I can hold them for just 2 seconds without them freaking out, then I want to work up to 3 seconds, 4 seconds, and so on. Keep in mind that no glove in the world is completely bite-proof, so you still want to observe body language at all times. Many times I will not have my hand in the gloves all of the way so I can kind of test the waters.
8. Starting Contact With Kittens
Try to avoid approaching the kitten from the front or staring directly at the feral kitten as both approaches can be interpreted as threatening and can backtrack progress. Along with gently petting the cat from the head and moving toward the back (from most comfortable to least comfortable), you will want to make sure that they do not see your hands at first, which is often accomplished by feeding them or playing with them and sneaking in pets in the process. Hands can be very frightening at first because you are seen as a predator in the beginning stages.
The kitten will assume he is being groomed by a littermate rather than being stroked by a human if he does not see your hands in most cases. Utilizing a grooming tool or toothbrush can be an alternative to your hand if you want to take a safer approach at first. You can make the decision to wet the brush down or not since cat tongues are wet. If you can pet him from the front, then try to avoid bringing your hand over the kitten’s head, which can be threatening to him.
Caution will often override curiosity, which will lead to a definite activation of the fight or flight system, so every movement should be deliberate. Reaching into the cage with your fingers curled rather than outstretched can be less threatening than going straight forward. Allowing the kitten to smell just one extended finger is a common way to introduce yourself to a cat, which Jackson Galaxy referred to as the Michelangelo method. In the rare instance you are bitten during this part, push forward and then backward with your finger to get the kitten to let go. This works because prey usually try to pull away, so you are confusing the kitten into letting go.
One excellent way to show the cat that you love him is by slowly blinking at him and seeing if he blinks back. Avoid staring directly at the cat, as this can tell him that you are challenging him. Get in the habit of blinking slowly every time your cat looks at you and repeat as often as needed. The slow blink is done by closing your eyes for one second, then opening them back up. This is the cat version of saying, “I love you.”.
The kitten can be easily be desensitized to people around him, such as strangers or kids, once he is comfortable with you. The person with whom he is most comfortable should start the play session with a toy the kitten is most familiar with. Have strangers stand about 15-30 feet away from you and have them maneuver another, more unique toy around them so that the kitten has options for which toy he wants to play with. This is enough distance for him to realize that they are there but not so close that he would feel threatened. Throw treats to the stranger every so often, then discontinue playing for a brief period, so the kitten has an incentive to go over and check out the stranger dangling the toy around.
I sometimes suggest clicker training to my clients for a kitten that is making great strides and is becoming fearless at an accelerated pace. This type of training involves the use of a reliable clicker device and high-value treats. Some kittens will do well, and others will adjust poorly, which is dependent on their toleration of the sound that the clicker makes. The clicker emits a sound each time you tap the button on the front or on top of the device. You can do one trial run and decide if it is for them or not. All treats must be delivered within 1-2 seconds of the click and the desired behavior to be effective. Charge the clicker prior to a session, which is basically just clicking and giving a treat so the kitten can begin to get the idea of how this works.
I would tap the clicker each time a kitten approaches the stranger deliberately. I will then give the kitten a treat so that he associates approaching people with a positive result like getting a treat. Hearing the clicker from then on will tell the kitten that he is doing what you want for the reward. Click as he gets closer throughout the session but only click for closer approximations after a few times of stopping at the same place. Some blue tape or objects on the floor to indicate his level of advancement can be helpful for this. Or you can use the clicker for rewarding other good approximations toward an end result that you want to reach. One other example is tapping the clicker and giving the kitten a treat when you finish a one-second lift and want to work actively toward a two- or three-second lift.
The kitten will get used to the clicker being the confirmation that what he has done is the behavior we want to see more of and will hopefully repeat or expand on that behavior as we advance in our training. Finally, the stranger can gradually move closer to you and the kitten during every play session. You may use a marker to mark the area that they were at last time and decrease distance by 1 foot after each play session or experiment around and see what works.
Being handled without food is an essential skill for your kitten as she is almost ready to transition into a new home. You want to wait until your kitten is very full of food and extremely sleepy. It is often hardest to handle a kitten right before feeding when she is hungry and confused. Handling with food can be quite easy once you learn proper technique. That strategy usually involves petting her while she is eating and continuing to pet her after she is done eating. This is beneficial even if you can pet her for two seconds once the food is gone because you just go up from there.
9. Interactive Play
Interactive cat toys are always a great bonding tool to use for feral kittens. Toys such as Da Bird, Cat Charmer, Cat Dancer, and fishing rod toys work well. I like to start interactive play at 4 weeks old or as young as they are willing to play. You can sneak in a pet every so often while the kitten runs by or catches the toy as he is actively focused on the toy rather than you. Remember, it is all about his not seeing your hands. Initiating a play therapy session several times throughout a day will help your feral boost confidence since this is mimicking the successful capture of prey. Never use your hands for playtime.
Every so often, I will have a kitten terrified of an interactive toy because of the movement, shape, or size of that toy, so I have to switch things up just a bit. You may have to start with a toy that is non-threatening to the kitten, which can be a trial by fire. I usually have great luck with the Cat Dancer or Cat Charmer, then moving up to Da Bird after the kitten is comfortable with those two toys since Da Bird is a much bigger toy by comparison to other toys.
Avoid laser lights since the kitten never physically captures a toy, which can lead to a counterproductive loss of confidence and an increase in stress. You can offer the kitten some canned food after each catch by using a spoon and giving the rest to him on the final capture to signal that the hunt is over, which can lead to the next step of the prey cycle: sleep. If he refuses to play, use interactive cat toys with another cat. Playing with another cat in front of a fearful kitten can show him that you are non-threatening and that toys are fun to play with.
You can have the play sessions inside or outside of the cage, which is dependent on the progress of your feral kitten. I prefer to start inside of the cage (putting the toy through the top and sides) since the feral should only have unfettered access only after she has been through a good portion of the taming work. Avoid making it look like you are trying to hit her with the toy. The play sessions should last 15 minutes long and be put into motion about 3-4 times each day for it to be effective. Play by hiding the cat toy under and behind objects, so the kitten has to put in work to capture it.
Move the toy fast and slow, slither it across the ground and sometimes just give it small movements or hide it behind or inside of a box to imitate a mouse in the wild. Play-like-prey is a concept that states that you should never dangle a cat toy in front of her face as this is insulting to her and does not imitate real prey. I have never seen a mouse walk up to a cat. The mental aspect of play and socialization is just as important as the physical benefits. You can read more about play therapy techniques here.
Cats that are already out of a cage or do not do well with cages can be socialized with the same protocols listed above with a few adjustments. The main difference is that you will have to lure them out of hiding spots with food and start the first few play sessions by using interactive cat toys that can reach under the bed in a non-threatening manner. A cat will need to get used to where he is first then work his way out from there for this part of the socialization plan.
It is sometimes the case that the cat will need to become used to the idea of playing with the toy under the bed first because that is his safe zone. You will have to be slower in your approach as he has more area and opportunity to run and hide when not entirely confined. Remember that you will be moving at the kitten’s pace and not yours. I have a very long fishing rod toy I will cast out to where the cat is hiding and play with him that way, then I reel it in slowly. This takes some practice to toss the toy out to him without scaring him. Depending on the kitten and situation, this may not be the best technique for you.
I get my feral kittens out of their cage for playtime and lure them back into the cage in certain situations. The success of this strategy will depend on the level of confinement that I choose for each feral. I typically open the cage and lure them out with food, then play with them. Some kittens may absolutely freak out when allowed out of the cage for the first time. If the kitten is not able to be caught, then calm down and let him quiet down before trying to lure him back in the cage with food or toys. Avoid nets, upturned pet carriers, or chasing the kitten as this can set your progress back weeks. Even tying a string to the door of the cage, planting some canned food inside and hiding until you can close the door shut on them can work.
Once the play session is finished, I throw an irresistible treat or a novel toy into the cage to lure the kitten back in. I save my most tasty treats for that occasion. A laser light works exceptionally well if you have no dependable way to lead him back into the carrier or cage. The whole idea is to avoid chasing or scaring him back into his cage or ending on any kind of negative note.
10. Supplements And Ancillary Care
Being fully equipped is the first step to success in feral cat taming or animal care in general. There are a few supplements you can use with your feral kitten to increase his comfort level. The first supplement you can purchase is the Feral Flower formula from the Jackson Galaxy store, which is the gold standard. This essence will decrease the stress level when you are working with him on socialization. This product can be applied to the skin with a brush, mixed into the water supply or canned food, and so on. You can administer these drops 3 to 4 times daily at a dosage of 4 to 5 drops.
The second supplement is Feliway, which contains synthetic cat pheromones. Feliway can be applied via a spray or installed as an automatic diffuser straight into a wall socket. This product will help with general stress that a cat or kitten might be going through. You may consider feeding a Royal Canin diet called Calm, which helps soothe the stress that feral kittens can have throughout their lives, but it can be costly. This can be discussed with a veterinarian as it is a prescription diet.
Some people have reported success with taming kittens by using a backpack or a pouch made from a shirt to carry the kitten around. This works better for younger kittens rather than older kittens or sometimes as a last-ditch effort. Flooding (which is overwhelming the kitten with specific stimuli, hoping the kitten acclimates) works only when they are small and should be avoided for bigger kittens because it can backfire. The very first thing I actually do for tiny kittens is to carry them every single place I go because I know they will tame in literally no time flat.
Having the kitten with you most of the day can help socialize her on a fast track schedule if you have limited time, and she is not overly fearful of you and other people. Determining the socialization window and the age of the kitten is the best way to gauge the anticipated success. The body warmth and heartbeat elements are reasons why using a backpack or pouch system is practical.
11. New Experiences and New People
The best food to use for kittens when they are going through tough milestones is baby food or tuna. Use chicken flavored baby food with no onions in it as the onion is toxic to cats and can cause Heinz body anemia. Baby food is perhaps the best food in your arsenal, so use it sparingly. Utilize the high reward and best-tasting food only for when they are breaking ground into new territory and learning new skills that can be almost overwhelming for them to learn. I would avoid using your best food for areas that are already mastered because it can devalue the jackpot treats.
You can use soft music on the radio while you are gone or have a recording of your voice playing on a loop if the kitten is not yet used to human noise or they have shown little progress in responding to human voices. It is absolutely important that your kitten is acclimated to the sound of the human voice as they may have never been exposed to that sound before. I had one kitten that was scared of shoes, so I played the loop of my voice on a very soft level, then went from there. You should call friends and make appointments inside of the room that the feral is kept so they can get used to you talking in different tones of voice.
You can use the radio or iPod to play sounds that the kitten might hear throughout his life, like child sounds and male voices, if you do not have the I Calm Cat unit. The reason most kittens are more receptive to females is that men have a naturally louder voice and are taller than females in most cases. Always try to get down on the cat’s level and talk in a quieter voice like you would to a newborn baby. It is helpful if people learn to speak quietly around the feral and move quietly with movements that are not sporadic or quick.
The volume and duration of sounds can be increased gradually to acclimate the kitten to them. If you have only one feral kitten, then I suggest that you utilize a stuffed animal to keep him company. I even have a stuffed cat that has a realistic heartbeat. The one I use is the Snuggle Kitty by SmartPetLove. You may allow your other cats to socialize with him, as this may be beneficial once he is deemed healthy by the vet. You can spray Feliway, which is a calming pheromone, on the stuffed animal and around his cage. Alternatively, you can have a plug-in Feliway diffuser, which allows for continuous stress relief.
The environment should be designed in such a way that it appeases the kitten’s need to roam around, play, and engage in species-typical behavior. Vertical space, like cat towers and shelving units, is ideal as a kitten prefers an area that is high up and allows him the ability to look over his territory. Anything high off the ground can be counted as vertical space, even if it is an old bookcase. I like to use cat tunnels and boxes (so he has somewhere safe to hide and relax) trackball toys, catnip mice, and water fountains to bat at and drink from.
Tunnels and boxes can serve as midway points in a room, a place that is more social (in the middle of a room) but still serves as a hiding spot for the kitten to feel safe. Ideally, you would have the feral kitten work from a place of feeling most secure, like the bed, to a box that could be 10 feet from the bed, which is definite progress from my perspective. Puzzle feeders work great for getting feral kittens out of their shell once they get more used to the environment. I have found quite a few of my recent feral kittens love to forage for their food. I use the Indoor Hunting Feeder units for my feral kittens.
You know that you are making excellent progress once you notice the kitten grooming with you in sight, observing you with interest as opposed to fear, spending more time exploring than hiding, and playing without the fear of your moving around the room. You may still notice inexplicable or sudden setbacks with your feral from time to time. I call feral cat taming a constant process of three steps forward, and five steps back because working with a feral is quite similar to working with an abused child in that it can be a roller coaster with all the ups and downs.
Having a feral kitten hiss at you after all of the work you put into taming her down can be frustrating and hard to swallow. Please realize that the way she reacted could have been the byproduct of her previous life seeping into her current life. Her hissing and swatting could be a knee-jerk reaction to being frightened. You could have moved too fast, she got overstimulated from being petted for too long, or something else. Sometimes the ingrained habits come out from time to time, so there is no discernible reason in some cases. Ferals tend to go from one extreme to another.
12. Adopting Your Kittens
Adopting out a feral kitten can take some real effort on your part. You want the kitten to feel comfortable with a large group of people in an ideal world so that she does not get freaked out or run when a potential adopter walks in the door for a meet and greet. Potential adopters are much more likely to make friends with the kitten if they come bearing gifts when the kitten is hungry. Have them bring their favorite canned food or baby food variety, then have them offer it rather than your feeding the kitten. A toy is a good ice breaker without being too invasive. Remember the kryptonite!
You might write down the times the kittens are most often exhausted so you can have an adopter come at those times. Or you can wear down your kittens with some interactive play before a visit. You will just have to find out what works best for your kittens. Having the kitten isolated to one room rather than having access to the whole house, will be imperative. There is usually always one big lover kitten in each group of feral kittens that will give you hope.
What To Communicate:
- Feral kittens may be skittish
- Often happy left to own devices
- Patience, routine, frequency
- Feral kittens may be distrustful
- Feral kittens experience extremes
- Adapt a cat-like perspective
- Accept her as she is – quirks and all
- Know when enough is enough
- Reinforce trust by going at her speed
Part of success when moving the feral from your house into a new environment is being honest about your kitten’s history and communicating that a mini-taming process at the new house may need to happen for the first week or two. There is often the temptation to not include the past history as it relates to being feral, but this can lead to the adoptive parents’ having heightened expectations that are not met when they get home with the kitten. By being open and talking them through the reason that this kitten is special, they will start to understand how to best care for them.
The only time you can exclude feral history is if the behavior being displayed in his environment is so different now that you can barely tell the kitten was ever feral at all. I have certainly had situations where the behavior of a feral was indistinguishable from a tame kitten at the time of adoption. This is usually the case when you take on a kitten that is 6 weeks old or younger, rather than when you try to tame a kitten that is 12 weeks or older.
I have found that the best way to adopt a feral kitten out is to completely skip any adoption center or a central location for adopting out cats. Providing the potential family a small course in socialization and feral kitten care is very valuable. These are kittens who will feel most secure in a home environment. It would be awful to transport the kitten to the shelter for viewing, only to scare the kitten and shoot progress back 3 or 4 weeks. Adopt the kitten at your house for the best results and have a friend with you if you do not feel safe.
You will want to tell the adopter to start in a small room like the bathroom since the kitten will need to explore the house gradually and become acclimated to a small space first so they can build the confidence needed to explore the rest of the house without fear. Take one baby step at a time to avoid problems. You do want to be careful not to put them in a room so small and isolated that they do not get enough attention. It will take a considerable amount of time for the kitten to gain confidence in the new environment. It can take days to weeks for them to become comfortable.
If a person is truly interested in a kitten, then you might have them get involved early and through later stages of socialization so they can form a bond with her. This can happen if a person finds the feral kitten and wants to adopt her if she successfully gets tamed down. Have adopters bring in clothing that smells like them so that the kitten can be introduced to them at an early age. I would avoid adopting ferals out to people who have children if at all possible, but I certainly make exceptions if the children are more mature.
The adoption of a feral kitten is usually successful, but there are multiple ways that it can unfold, which you should be prepared for. Sometimes the kitten will fail to settle in a new environment, so you need to be prepared to take the kitten back if it does not work out. At that point, you will assess whether the kitten has reverted and start from that point in the taming process. Sometimes the end answer is that you will need to rethink your adoption goals for that particular kitten because it may not be a logical goal for having your feral living in a household with people.
There have been times I was shocked by how well the feral kitten did in a brand-spanking new environment. Some feral kittens make strides so magnificent that they pester their owners for attention day and night, becoming their new best friend they did not know they needed. Some cats may bond with only one or two people and remain cautious of strangers throughout their entire lives. That deep-seated bond with you or the adopter may be the only bond they ever have. Many adopters, however, have reported back to me that their new addition is unique and adds value to their household.
Rarely, the shock of returning from a failed adoption can throw ferals into an accelerated process of being tamed, which I have been witness to several times. It is quite odd, with no real explanation of this phenomenon. This does not happen very often, and I would never advise anyone to attempt this deliberately as it terrifies the kitten in the hope that you can tame them down faster. All adopters should know that if it does not work out, you will take the cat back. This safety net builds trust with you and avoids the possibility that they would leave the cat outside or elsewhere if they feel embarrassed or that they failed the cat in the long run, which isn’t true.
13. Final Feral Kitten Tips
You never want to rush the taming process (and end up injured as a result) or expect a kitten to conform to any certain expectation. The best thing you can do is walk into every situation in life, expecting nothing. Building lost trust, or trust that was never there to begin with, can be extremely difficult. The more frightened cats will require a more extended and more intensive treatment plan. A cat’s bite can do some damage due to the bacteria in a cat’s mouth, and a bite can happen in a split second. All bites are severe and require medical attention. Always read a cat’s body language and move at his pace. I always recommend a current tetanus shot, first aid kit, and some basic knowledge on cat bite wounds.
I like to avoid big leather gloves since cats can bite through them with no problem and they are very threatening. I also like to stay away from the big gloves since the dexterity in each hand is decreased due to their thickness and size. Small oven mitts work great for handling ferals because they offer just enough protection while allowing you to control the cat. Often the best tip I have is to test the waters by not having your hand all the way through the glove but just enough so you can kind of pet the kitten or minimally handle him for simple procedures.
To transport the kitten, I recommend a carrier that can open from the top and from the front, so I have options if things go wacky. The benefit of the top-loading carrier is to avoid your cat’s feeling trapped and to allow for multiple ways to enter the carrier and gives treats. I love praise before, during, and after vet visits by dropping treats through the top of the carrier. Protective gloves can be more readily used from the top of the carrier, too. Always carry the carrier with both hands and avoid using the handle as the resulting vibration and shaking can scare a feral kitten.
14. Taming a Female Kitten Is Harder
You can thank Mother Nature for this one. Males get an easy pass because their role in reproduction is very minimal compared to the female who has to make hundreds of tough decisions on a daily basis, if not more often. Because female kittens can become pregnant at just 4 months old, female feral kittens are already becoming very independent by the time you start socializing them. In the time between 8 weeks and 16 weeks, a female kitten must learn an overwhelming amount of material to become a mom.
The female kitten must become self-sufficient in a mind-boggling set of tasks, including hunting, feeding herself, and preparing to have a family on the street as a single mother without any additional support. Finding a safe haven to have the kittens, a place that is safe from any predators or foot traffic, is just step one. Just think about the hundreds of decisions that must be made as a female.
Male kittens, in contrast, develop much more slowly and have a free ride because all they need to know how to do is hunt and stay away from danger. That being said, the fight-or-flight instinct in female kittens completely shoots into orbit after 8 weeks old. If you can take a second to think about the development it takes to go from dependence on your mom to being a mom in 2 months, then this makes sense.
To socialize the female more effectively, we need to understand the reason they are usually more independent. To accommodate this, we need a strategy to help those kittens socialize more. First, they need the option to stay away from us or to approach at the drop of a hat. Your approach to socialization will need to be on their time, not yours. Just give them time, patience, and space, and use food as a bribe to get them to come to you. Cornering them will let you catch them, but when the dust settles, you have gained no ground and moved 5 steps back.
A mamma cat has to make sure the kittens are fed, so she is not going to bail on what could be her only real chance of eating. Even at 4 months old, she has been genetically wired to use her instinct to gather food and not to take any chances that are dangerous or unnecessary. Letting an unknown human touch her could, after all, mean life or death for all she knows. The good thing is that they are very intelligent and will hopefully realize in time that you are not dangerous and are the giver of food, treats, and playtime.
15. Taming a Feral Adult Cat
Taming a mature feral cat is a daunting task even for the most experienced cat behavior expert because the golden window of socialization has long passed him by, and he has, in most cases, become utterly wild. The likelihood of success is mostly dependent on the temperament, previous contact with humans, and the age of the feral. The first part is to make sure of is that the cat receives veterinary care to get him/her fixed, vaccinated, and FIV/FELV tested right away. Do not wait like you would with a kitten. You do not need illness or hormones to throw a wrench into taming.
Sometimes you may get lucky, and the cat you obtained is not feral at all. At this point, you can fix the cat and put him up for adoption once he is calmed down from severe stress and anxiety that probably mimicked the way a feral cat would react to being caught. At the end of the day, even a normal tamed-down cat can experience extreme fear from stress, which can rival the fear a feral cat displays. I had one cat that we had accepted from the parking lot of a County Market who jumped 6 feet up and attached himself to the cage, hissed and yowled continuously. This cat was so scared that he peed himself several times. After about 2 to 3 months of working with him, he was the best cat..
Make sure to tell any vet you work with that your cat is wild so they can remain safe and utilize fear-free strategies that are compatible with ferals. The safety of the veterinarian and staff is the first priority. The general recommendation for housing an adult feral cat, who will need more enrichment than a short-term kitten, is a large dog enclosure, 3-4 layer cat cage, or a large playpen. The cage must be large enough for a cat carrier to be placed inside through the cage door. This gives them a spot to hide and allows you to transport them when they enter the pet carrier.
Implementation of supplements in the food or diffusers can be essential at this point and are very recommended since taming an adult is ten times harder than a kitten. My favorite supplement, as described previously, is the Feral Flower Solution by Jackson Galaxy. For the first three days, you will want to restrict your visits to feeding and cleaning as the cat is slowly adjusting to the new environment. Allow a few more days than you would a kitten to adjust. I like to do about one week and a couple days.
Gradually build up time spent in the room over a period of days. You want to try and enter at the same time each day, so the cat has an idea of when to expect you, which builds confidence for the cat. Talk softly and consistently when in the room. You can read a book, watch television, or even play a video game. You are just wanting the cat to get used to your being in their presence.
Leaving a tape recording of your voice or calming music in your absence can be beneficial. Even a news station with human sounds is better than no sound at all, which can be boring. You can use table scraps in moderate amounts if it turns out to be a sufficient bribe for getting the cat out of hiding. Canned food just may not be enough in some situations, so you need tuna or human food.
Litter pans may include garden dirt initially as the cat would not have been likely to ever use cat litter. You can sterilize the dirt in a metal baking tray in a hot oven. Potting compost may also be adequate. Any solids outside of the pan will be placed back into the pan to build scent association, rather than just tossing them in a trash can.
Sprinkle some cat litter in the pan each time you clean to help build rapport with it. Increase the amount of litter and decrease soil slowly. Anything you do with litter should be gradual. Long gloves and brushes may be needed if the cat is trying to attack you. Going from the cage to a room once they are litter box trained is the final step. At this point, you follow the same protocol as you use for a feral kitten to get him acclimated to your house: plenty of vertical space, spaces to sleep, hiding spots, and many enrichment opportunities.
You can leave the cage door open in the room you choose to start him out in. The cat initially will not venture out until you are gone, and you will not likely see the cat for a day or two. This is where a wireless internet protocol camera like Petcube can help. You can remove the cage once the cat is not spending significant time in it. Spend as much time as you can in the room after the adult cat has acclimated for the most part. Make sure to bring in comfortable bedding so you can spend time in the room without feeling bored or uncomfortable. You are making good progress once the adult cat is coming out.
You can always leave the cage, too. Sometimes it is like a security blanket and can prove to be a useful tool for taming cats. The cat knows instinctively she can retreat if she starts to feel overwhelmed. This is still a far cry from friendly, and you must be in it for the long haul. Talk reassuringly and slowly move your hand towards the cat when he is tired. Leave your hand where you have it and allow him to sniff if he hisses or growls. Slowly move your hand away, or he will swipe if you are too fast since it would imitate prey. Start petting where the cat is most comfortable, which would be the top of the head, but slowly move from a lower position and work your way up. Immediately putting your hand over her head can be threatening.
The key is to pet the cat in a way that does not result in a negative experience or reaction, if even just for a moment, during a time he does not react or care. This is to say that you never want to completely surprise, scare, or come up behind the cat without his knowing you are in the room with him. Always observe body language, as previously described in this article, and keep yourself safe. You may need to back up for a few days if he starts showing defensive aggression. Some cats may pee or poop in fright. Wait until the cat moves to a hiding spot before you start cleaning.
It is essential that the cat regards you as a piece of furniture rather than a threat. Spending a ton of time in the room will help with this concept because, eventually, you may even decide to sleep in the room. Interactive play is going to be the next piece of the puzzle. To start with, feathers on a string or ping pong balls can be useful. You may even bat the toy a bit to show it is safe for the cat to play with. You can review literature on play therapy.
Start slow and make no sudden movements at all. Making sudden movements can scare the cat. You may leave some toys in the room when you are not there. When you do eventually (and hopefully) reach stroking, sit on the floor with a towel on your lap. You can use treats to encourage your cat to sit on you when stroked. You may even be lucky enough to pick the cat up. I recommend some sort of protection the first time. If the cat acts negatively towards you, then you need to step back and start again from the last point you had success.
If you do start to pick the cat up and the cat gets defensive, you need to just revert to sitting on the floor for 3-4 days before starting again. You need to be able to reliably pick up the cat and place him on your lap for petting before you can introduce him to other people. Or you can use the previous strategies discussed for luring the cat onto your lap and for involving family members in play therapy so you can gradually build the cat up to that level of success.
Older members of the family can get involved with treats or toys once you are at this step. Introducing this cat to other cats in the household should follow a formal cat introduction protocol that can be found on this website. You can use the cage method or the boot-camp method. Some people have found that their cat has made tremendous strides and is no longer feral. It is often the case that the cat will not take to strangers very well, which is fine. The cat may allow you to pet him just once in a while, or it may take a year for you to finally pet him like you would a typical cat.
Owning a previously feral cat is a rewarding venture once you are able to touch her for the first time. Touching one cat I had worked with for weeks for the first time rivaled the surprise birthday party I had the prior year. I have adopted several previously feral adult cats that blossomed in a new home within months or even a year’s time of adjusting to their new homes. It is not for every cat or every family, but I never rule it out as a possibility, and neither should you.
There have been one or two situations where I placed a feral cat in a 5×5 enclosure where the cat could get away but still had exposure to people in the shelter environment. The consistent presence of people and opportunities for interaction really made an impact when the people handed out treats, and nothing terrible happened. This is always worth a shot for those cats who show promise.
If the cat shows no sign of progress in 6 months–literally no progress at all in any area of socialization–then you need to consider returning the cat to a colony or relocating him. If the cat is extremely aggressive, then you need to consider your safety and the safety of your family. If stress results in vomiting or herpes virus infection, consider whether this is really beneficial for the cat. The best benchmark for success and reliable results with a feral is how he interacts with you and his environment when given time and patience. Six months is often a very good amount of time.
16. The Feral That Cannot Be Tamed
Even experienced feral cat tamers can feel discouraged when they encounter a kitten that is not taming down as expected. If the kitten is genetically predisposed to life as a wild animal, then you should look at the situation realistically. You do not want to overwhelm her if she is always at the peak of anxiety, stress, or fear (with no hope of recovery in the long term) when in close proximity with humans.
It can be counterproductive to have your house become filled to the brim with feral cats that would be happier outdoors. You have to keep in mind that keeping more cats would limit your capacity to take in a kitten with better odds of becoming a house cat, which opens up another slot for you to continue fostering the ones who need help. Maintaining a sensible outlook can be difficult and challenging, but successful outcomes are often very satisfying.
A small proportion (around 10%) of each feral colony will remain untamable, even if caught at a young age. Often there is no magical age at which they become untamable. Genetics passed on to them by completely feral adult cats have been identified as just one of the many factors at play. Just recently, there was some research that concluded that some kittens simply lack the genetic makeup that allows them to adapt to a household setting. You should always spay/neuter, vaccinate, and blood test each cat for feline leukemia and FIV prior to releasing them to a barn or feral cat program.
There are people that will insist–to the point that they are blue in the face–that all cats can be tamed down if given enough time and effort. The problem with this philosophy is that it can be cruel and even inhumane to cage what is essentially a wild animal for months and months. Always balance the cost, time, and success rate for each litter of kittens that you are attempting to tame down. Sometimes you have to prioritize the kittens which stand a better chance of being rehomed as pets over those that do not.
There are often not enough volunteers that can spare the time to work with older kittens for them to be tamed down. If you have that very involved person, then more power to your organization in this initiative. Smaller shelters, for instance, can find it hard to concentrate enough on the more responsive kittens by spending too much time on a nearly impossible case. Fortunately, at our rescue, we can devote that kind of time to the semi-feral kittens and feral kittens.
Each feral kitten is different due to temperament and the amount of previous exposure to humans. Kittens, as stated previously, develop at different rates. If you want to continue trying to tame a problematic cat, then always remember that you need to not rush things, reinforce the taming process, and practice being extremely patient.
The end result may be relocating to a barn, releasing into the former feral colony, or rehoming as an indoor feral. An indoor feral will sometimes do fine with just one person or the individual who has worked with him. Relocating away from the house of the individual who has worked with him can sometimes work well, but other times it can blow up in your face. Feral cats may evolve into the best version of themselves or be impossible to handle.
Early sterilization of untameable young ferals, as young as practical, will allow them to return to a colony rather than being kept in captivity for months. Going through with this option can be the kindest gift you can give. Being kept in captivity for months can lead to stress-based illness, tying up cage space and making it hard for them to reintegrate at a later point in time.