Kittens are considered feral if they are born outdoors, whether their mother is a feral cat living in the wild or a lost or abandoned house cat. These kittens have never been socialized with humans from the day they were born, so they might be hissy, aggressive, frightened, or avoidant if you approach them. In fact, even kittens born indoors, if not properly socialized during their first weeks, can also display feral behavior.
Many people bring feral kittens home with the hope of turning them into affectionate pets. Only later do they realize the time and commitment required to train and socialize these cats. Sadly, most owners give up along the way and end up with feral adult cats that are difficult to adopt.
Feral kittens need time and attention to transform them into loving home companions, and unfortunately this change will not happen overnight – it is a huge commitment. Hence, adopting a feral kitten is not for everyone, unless you have the time and resources to socialize and care for the cat.
Can you tame a feral kitten?
Feral kittens can be tamed if they are rescued and socialized as young as possible – preferably before six weeks of age. Young kittens are easier to train and socialize – they can quickly learn to eat on their own and become trusting of humans and other animals. Generally, then, the younger they are socialized, the higher the chances they will become wonderfully loving house pets.
Unfortunately, feral kittens that are rescued at over six weeks old can be a bit challenging to socialize, and some might never be fully domesticated. Conversely, some young or adult feral cats can be tamed and will be loving toward a single person only, but then revert to their feral behavior when adopted by a new owner. It generally takes a few months for these cats to adjust to their new caretakers.
How long does it take to tame a feral kitten?
Feral kittens need around two weeks or more to be fully tamed, depending on their age and temperament. Keep in mind that some kittens might take longer before they develop full trust in their humans. So, if you are bringing home a feral kitten from the wild, make sure you can commit enough time and patience to socialize it.
How do you care for a neonatal kitten?
Neonatal kittens are newborn kittens under the age of four weeks. Since they are found away from or abandoned by their mother, these babies will need special, round-the-clock care – they will be reliant solely on you for survival. That includes bottle feeding and keeping them clean and warm, just like a mother cat would do. And, unfortunately, some neonatal kittens may not survive, no matter how well you care for them.
Before taking one of these babies home, you need to assess the situation carefully. Just because you see a litter of kittens on the street does not necessarily mean they have been abandoned by their mother. Observe from a distance and see if the mom returns; if not, you can step in and help the orphaned kittens.
Things to know before fostering feral kittens
So, you think you are ready to foster a feral kitten and hopefully become their favorite human companion. There are some things you need to know before moving forward, and these are summarized below:
1. Time commitment
First things first: are you willing to commit a couple of hours each day to care for and socialize the kitten? If you are a busy person with a demanding job, then adopting a feral kitten is probably not the best option for you. But, if you feel you can commit enough time for the job, then great!
Keep in mind that caring for a feral kitten demands more time, devotion, patience, and love than required for a normal kitten. Feral kittens born in the wild are not used to human affection so it can be quite challenging to care for them. Once you earn their trust and love, however, it is definitely a rewarding experience.
2. The kitten’s age
As mentioned, the ideal age to adopt and socialize a feral kitten is at six weeks or younger. Those that are just a few weeks older can already be difficult to tame. That said, every cat has its own unique personality, so it is possible for some feral cats to quickly adapt while others might take months before they are fully tamed.
3. Spaying or neutering the cat
Aside from the commitment to socialize and care for your feral baby, you also need to consider spaying or neutering the cat. Vets recommend this procedure once the kitten reaches the age of three months and weighs approximately three pounds.
4. Proper handling
Since feral kittens have never had contact with humans, they have the tendency to bite or scratch out of fear. Accidents might happen during the first few days of socializing, so you need to be cautious at all times.
If you are scratched or bitten, make sure to clean and disinfect the wound right away. If you are not vaccinated against rabies, go to the nearest clinic in your area to get the necessary shots.
5. Be prepared
Last but not least, make sure you have everything you need to care for feral kittens. That includes food, bedding, litter boxes, and cages. If you are bringing home more than one kitten, it is best to confine them in separate cages so that it is easier to manage each one individually.
Remember to keep an eye on the kittens and never let them run loose inside your home. These little furballs can easily hide in small spaces such as behind the furniture, under the dryer, or inside a closet, in which case it can be really challenging to retrieve them. Make sure that the kittens are secured in their cages while you are in the process of taming them.
Steps in socializing a feral kitten
1. Place the kitten in a cage
Containment should be the first step in socializing a feral kitten. You can choose a pet cage, pet tent, or a small room such as a bathroom where you can work with them. If you are using a cage, make sure to place the cage in a large room so that the kitten can observe the household activities without feeling totally isolated.
It is also helpful to place bedding, a litter box, food bowls, and water inside the cage. Make sure that the food and water bowls are near the door so that you will not have to put your hand too far inside.
Keep in mind that your first introduction with the kitten might not go smoothly. Feral kittens will spit, hiss, scratch, or bite at humans because they feel frightened. They consider humans to be large predators and these tiny creatures are just trying to fight for their survival. Your end goal must be to help the kitten develop confidence and trust in humans.
2. Offer treats
Food will be your most essential tool throughout the socialization process. Kittens generally have an insatiable appetite, which you can use to your advantage. Start giving them human baby food first, using a spoon. Gerber foods in chicken, beef, or turkey flavors are usually favorites. Hungry kittens will have more courage to approach you and allow you to touch them in exchange for tasty treats.
However, you must not leave the food inside the cage or the room; this will let the kitten think they can get food without your presence. Treats must be recognized as incentives for welcoming you into their world.
If the kitten starts to feel calm and comfortable eating with you in the room, you can start delaying the meals just a bit, to speed up the socialization process. Kittens that are around six to eight weeks old will be hungry more often and will eat around four times a day. You can take advantage of their hunger by giving them treats every time you work with them. However, if you can only work with them twice a day due to other commitments, make sure to leave them a little bit of food – just enough that they are hungry again when you come back.
3. Feed the kitten with your finger
Letting kittens eat treats off your finger is an excellent way of helping them associate human hands with positive experiences. Start by placing the food bowl beside you and allow them to come closer to eat. You can gradually progress by touching the food bowl and later start hand-feeding them.
However, a hungry kitten will not be able to control their appetite and might chew your finger by mistake. You could try teaching them to lick the baby food by feeding them with a spoon, popsicle stick, or tongue depressor, but until they are able to figure it out, you may have to endure their bites while hand-feeding them.
The end goal of this exercise is to make the kitten more comfortable when you reach out to them. On your first few meetings, remember not to stare at them, as this body language is seen as threatening or aggressive. Instead, avoid direct eye contact and lower your head when socializing with them. Try to engage and talk with the kitten in a soft, calm voice.
4. Initiate touch
When the kitten is feeling more calm, you can progress to the next step. Place a towel over the kitten and start petting them gently on the head and shoulders. Approach from behind rather than from the front, as this will be less frightening for your tiny friend.
Once the kitten is accustomed to being touched and eating treats off your finger, you can begin leading them onto your lap. Place a towel on your lap as well as the treats, and let them climb up onto you to grab a few bites.
If you have more than one kitten, you might find some have the courage to approach you while others will be more shy. Let the braver kittens come closer and closer and see if you can make eye contact with them as they eat from your finger. Separate the shy ones so you can work more with them later on.
You can also begin stroking your kitten’s back with a soft pet brush, mimicking the mother cat’s action of grooming her kittens. Doing this will likely push them to seek parental love and security from you. Keep these sessions short and sweet, and do not forget to offer tasty treats after each session.
5. Let the kitten out in a small room
Within a week or so, you should start seeing significant progress from your little furball.
At this point, you can let them out to explore a larger space. Make sure the room is kitten-proof: cover any nooks and crannies to prevent frightened kittens from hiding and becoming trapped. Remove any hazardous or breakable objects, such as plants and vases.
If they are too scared to be in the new room, place them back in the cage or in a smaller room.
Remember that every cat is unique – some are fast learners while others might need more time to figure things out. Be consistent: small progress is still progress!
6. Teach the kitten to be picked up
When the kitten feels more comfortable being petted or touched on the head and shoulders, you can gradually start touching them on the back, the base of the tail, and the underbelly. The underbelly is considered one of the most sensitive parts on any cat, so touch it carefully or you might end up bitten and scratched. You can try touching their tummy for the first time while they are busy eating.
For their first lift, try placing a small dish of food under their chest, and gradually lift the dish while they are engrossed in eating. Lift them gradually towards your knees, then towards your tummy and chest. Make sure that there is enough food right in front of their nose as you lift the dish to keep them busy.
If they are feeling more comfortable or at least have learned to tolerate being lifted, it is a day to celebrate! Kittens will gradually learn to love and feel more secure with the warmth of your body as you hold them.
Make sure that your kitten feels comfortable with small lifts before picking them up completely. Remember that untrained kittens or cats can feel frightened when picked up – it is the same feeling as being restrained by a larger predator in the wild. As much as possible, we want to replace that fear with a good experience so that the kitten grows affectionate and more welcoming to human touch.
7. Expose the kitten to other people
The last step is to socialize your kitten with other humans. If the little furball no longer bites or scratches when touched, you can ask family members or friends to approach and interact with them as frequently as possible.
Cats tend to trust and bond with a single person who cares for them and feeds them. Your end goal is for the kitten to become accustomed to and more friendly with other humans and pets, so that they can easily adjust to new homes should they be adopted in the future.
Wrapping it up
Some feral kittens are quick learners while others will need more time and patience before they become socialized. However, if you are not making any progress after two to three weeks, it could be that the kittens are older than you first assumed when you brought them home, or are more bonded with their siblings than with their human. At this point, it might be best to separate the kittens temporarily while you teach them to trust humans.
As a rule, never force a kitten to behave according to your expectations. Rather let them socialize on their own terms, and always remember to follow this up with treats and rewards.
Also remember that there are cases where feral cats are better off left in their colony, where they will live a perfectly happy life.
Image: istockphoto.com / BigDuckSix