Taming Ferals !
To learn about Taming Ferals, watch our video
Tough Love, Socializing Feral Kittens and read the Taming guidelines below as well as checking out the many tips for
living with feral cats on our blog http://www.socialferals.blogspot.com/
(For a much more in-depth, printer-friendly version of these Guidelines, click here.)
Some Helpful Guidelines for Taming Feral Kittens
Kittens under 8 weeks can usually be socialized without much difficulty following the guidelines detailed below. Kittens over 8 weeks of age who've had no positive interaction with humans often take much longer to socialize. However, these same guidelines are often effective up to 6 months and often even with adult ferals.
Location - The best places to socialize kittens are anywhere where the socializer can get on the same level and comfortably interact with the kittens without the kittens feeling towered over, "backed into a corner," or hiding out of reach. Many large-dog kennels are roomy enough for the socializer to sit inside and have the added advantage of more frequent exposure to typical human activity if placed in a busy room of the house. Most bathrooms work very well although they are isolated from continual household activity. A small room without hiding spots under couches and beds or behind furniture can also work very well. Radio and television sounds can contribute to getting outdoor ferals accustomed to the indoor environment.
The double decker wire catteries on wheels can work very well to start socialization but at some point you must let the kittens out in a confined space where they can choose to approach you. They can be wheeled into a small room to be let out for hands on work or wheeled back into the living area for exposure to general activity between socialization sessions. Try to choose the set up which gives the kittens the most "quality" exposure to you and household activity.
Small cages or carriers don't work well since the cats always feel cornered when we reach in and they have no room to make the important "mind shift" where THEY choose to approach US out of self-interest in order to get the food they desire. They need to have the option NOT to be near you in order to make that decision to approach. We have some limited equipment information on our website where to obtain traps, handling gloves and socialization pens.
CATS SOCIALIZE THEMSELVES BY CHOICE. We only provide the incentive... FOOD!
FOOD is the most important tool to facilitate the socialization process. Growing kittens have an insatiable appetite which will give them the courage to approach you and be touched when they might normally never allow you anywhere near them. NEVER put food down and walk away. It takes away any incentive for them to welcome you into their world. NO FREE RIDES!
The following guidelines are not "hard, fast rules." You may find that the kittens skip to advanced stages very quickly or you may find they follow a sequence of their own design.
- Evaluation -
If the kittens are healthy, using the litter box, and will eat in front of you, you can
safely begin delaying meals just enough to give you the advantage of hunger. (If not, you may decide
to give them a "free ride" until this situation stabilizes. Once they seem calmer or the vet gives the OK,
you may begin the "tough love" stage of socialization where you space out the meals so that the kittens
are eager to learn.)
- Tough Love -
Never put food down and
walk away. If the kittens will eat in your
presence, progressively pull the dish as close to
you as possible. Stay with the kittens until they
have finished eating and then take any
remaining food away with you when you leave.
Always leave water of course, but NO FOOD
unless you are there with them.
- Eating off your finger -
kittens have progressed to eating from a dish right beside you with your hand touching the dish, start
offering something tasty off your finger. Gerber or Beechnut baby food are favorites in Turkey,
Chicken or Beef flavors. You may want to try this in place of step 2 if they won't move close to you to
eat from the dish. The order is of no importance as long as they are improving on some level. Be
flexible but don't let them hold you hostage at the stage of their choice. "Get tough," and make them
work for it. Until they realize the Baby Food's consistency, they may want to gulp bites before they
learn to lick it. Let them learn to lick from a spoon, popsicle stick or tongue depressor if they want to
chew your finger instead of lick at first. They figure out to lick not bite quickly, but in the meantime,
ouch! Your hand reaching close to them, without them retreating in fear is the lesson they are
learning through hand feeding.
- Lead them onto your lap -
Once they are used to eating off your
finger, use that to lead them up into
contact with your body by their choice.
You can also try putting a dish in your
lap and let the entire litter climb up
onto you to eat. The braver ones will
start and the shy ones may need to be
worked with individually at their level.
Lead the braver ones as close as possible
and see if they will make eye contact
with you while licking from your finger.
That's a biggie for them! Put the fast
learners in a carrier to work with the
shier ones. Put a dish inside and close
the door on them, if they aren't quite ready to be picked up easily.
- Initiate Contact -
Initiate contact at the beginning of a session where the kittens are
particularly hungry and eagerly engrossed in eating. Start with them eating from a dish or while
eating off the finger and eventually progress to touching them and petting while they are in your lap
eating. Start in the head and shoulder area only. If s/he runs off, lure them back with baby food on the
finger and any bad experience should be soon forgotten. (This approach to handle mistakes works at
any stage. Back up to a stage that they've mastered and work back up to where they "freaked-out."
Don't stop the session until they've forgotten the bad experience and are happily doing one of the
steps with which they feel comfortable.)
Check out video footage of these techniques in action in part 2 of Tough Love the accompanying video to this page.
- Preparation for lifting -
Expand petting and touching around the head and shoulders by
moving to touching the underbelly to desensitize them for being picked up. Also try nudging them
from one side to the other while they are engrossed in eating. Just having your hands near them and
gently pushing them around is an important preparation to being picked up.
- Moving on the ground -
Set up two dishes and gently lift/scoot a kitten the short distance
from one dish to the other, very close to the ground. If the kitten is engrossed in eating s/he won't
mind being lifted if it goes smoothly and quickly. If not, lure 'em back, back up and start over.
- Picking them up -
Start sitting on the floor so the first real lift is still close to the floor from
their point of view. Have a full jar of baby food opened and ready before you try the first pick-up. Try
it when they are engrossed in eating right next to you rather than scrambling after them on the run.
Lift them under their chest with a small dish of food RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEIR NOSE the whole
time. Hold them as loosely as possible onto your knees and eventually to your chest. Young kittens are
often reassured if they feel the warmth of your body and can feel your heart beat when held against
your chest. If it works you can try it up onto your knees the next day and eventually standing up.
Make sure they are very comfortable with the small lifts before you ever bend down from towering
above them and picking them up fully standing. When you can do that, you're home free!
- Handling w/o food -
After a good long session where the kitten(s) are very full and getting
sleepy, try gentle petting and work up to holding and petting without the incentive of food being
present. If this works
you should be able to
try it at other times
between meals. It may
be hardest just before
feeding when the
kittens are very
hungry and confused
and stressed by being
held when they have
only food on their
usually at least one
"love bug" in every
litter that will give you hope for the others.
- Transition to adoption - Before putting them in a cage in an adoption center, test them with a few different socializers. If the volunteers at the adoption center can continue the baby food training there is often a smooth transition. Older and especially shy kittens do better when they go directly to an adoption and bypass the adoption center altogether. A crash course in socializing for the adopting family may be needed to assure that the transition to the home goes well. If the adopter starts them in the bathroom rather than turning the kittens loose to the run of the house, it will assure that they can bond with the kittens and that the kittens will know where the litter box is. If not the kittens often run off under the couch to hide for the foreseeable future. Give them a copy of this so they can understand what they kittens have accomplished and how they can continue the progress.
INTERACTIVE PLAY - "Most" feral kittens are frightened by interactive play when first exposed to humans. There is no rule for when to introduce it, or when they will accept it, but the best way to start is with a toy which isn't too threatening. A string on the end of a stick or some toy that allows you to entice them from a distance, allows them to get involved with your game without being face to face with you. Some people have found that interactive play was the breakthrough activity much more so than using food. Be flexible to discover what breaks the ice best and branch out from that. Use whatever proves to be their favorite thing as a reward for new steps or to break through a plateau. Once a step has been mastered, only offer regular food as a reward for that step saving the favorite treat for breaking into new territory. Remember the Mantra "Tough Love."
For more information about other approaches to cat/kitten socialization, please view these other resources: