What are Feral Cats?

Feral cats are essentially “wild animals.” They have not been socialized toward humans.

Can Feral Kittens and Cats be Tamed?

Feral kittens can usually be tamed if they are rescued young enough AND they are socialized properly. Feral kittens should begin their socialization as young as possible. When trapping feral kittens outdoors, it’s ideal to rescue them at 4-5 weeks of age. At this age, they can usually be taught quickly how to eat on their own and socialize fairly quickly (from several days to a couple of weeks). In general, the younger the kittens are when first socialized, the better the chances are that they will not be fearful of people. These kittens typically become wonderful, loving pets.

Feral kittens should be placed in adoptive homes soon after socialization because some feral kittens, especially those captured at an older age, tend to bond with one person. Kittens who are 7-8 weeks or older who have had little or no physical or social contact with humans can rarely be completely domesticated, although some younger ones may be partially tamed with patience. Sometimes older feral kittens or young feral adults who have become tame and loving with one person can revert to a wild state when placed in a new home. It can take months for these kittens and cats to bond with the new caretaker.

How Long is the Taming Process for Kittens?

It usually takes about 2 weeks (or longer for exceptionally skittish kittens) to fully tame feral kittens, depending on their age and state of wildness. Kittens can differ greatly in temperament even within the same litter. Some may tame up immediately and others take longer. Patience and commitment is required.

What are the Steps in the Taming Process?

  1. Containment (I) in a cage, large pet carrier, or bathroom
  2. Periodic and brief handling with a protective towel
  3. Offering “treats”
  4. Containment (II) in a small room
  5. Exposure to other humans

1. Containment (I)

Place the kittens in a cage or large carrier which already contains food, water, litter box and bedding. It’s helpful if the cage or carrier has food and water bowls that are attached to the doors so you can give them food and water without placing your hand inside.

If you do not have a cage, or your carrier is too small for a litter box, place the kittens in a small room, like a bathroom, in the carrier. Place the litter box in the room and leave the carrier door open (or remove it). Worn human clothing used as bedding can help get them use to the smell of humans.

Feral kittens may hiss and “spit” at humans because they are terrified. Kittens that act the most ferocious are usually the most scared. They are capable of scratching or biting and will probably try to escape if given the chance. To the kitten, you are a predator and they are fighting for their life. Kittens must learn to feel safe. Visit them frequently and talk to them quietly. Always move slowly.

2. Handling

Select the least aggressive kitten, place a towel over it, and pick it up. If the kitten stays calm, pet it gently on the head from behind. Never approach from the front. A hand coming at the kitten is frightening.

If the kitten remains calm, grip it securely by the nape of the neck, put the towel on your lap and set it on the towel. Stroke the kitten*s body while speaking in soft, reassuring tones, then release. Make this first physical contact brief. Go through this process with each kitten. After all have been handled, give them a special treat. Baby food or Hills “A/D” brand canned food from a spoon is a great ice-breaker. Repeat this process as frequently as possible.

Brushing with a soft pet brush imitates the action of the mother grooming the kittens and will help to transfer their need for parental love to you. It is also extremely important for health reasons to remove fleas right away – with a flea comb and/or Capstar (oral prescription medication). Kittens become anemic from flea infestation and can easily fall prey to illnesses in this condition. Using a flea comb also helps the bonding process.

Never stare at the kittens for prolonged periods. This is aggressive body language to cats. Avert your eyes frequently and lower your head often to display submissive behavior. This will be less threatening to the kittens.

Play with the kittens using “kitty tease” toys (a tiny piece of cloth tied to a string which is tied to a small stick) or lightweight cat toys. Don’t leave strings or any other object that is small enough to swallow with the kittens. This can be fatal.

Leave a radio with them tuned to a “talk” radio station whenever you are not with the kittens. This will help them become accustomed to human voices.

3. Offering “Treats”

Food will play an essential role in kitten socialization. Offer them “treats” often. It is especially effective to offer them a couple of spoonfuls of human baby food a day (meat only). Kittens LOVE baby food! Start by putting a little bit of baby food on their mouth or nose if they will not come to you. Once they realize they like the taste, offer them more on a spoon a few inches from their face. Gradually, hold the spoonful of baby food farther and farther away from the kitten and closer to you. This will entice the kitten to come toward you. Once they do this, and they get the positive reinforcement of the food, they will learn to not be afraid to approach you.

4. Containment (II)

Within a week kittens usually make considerable progress. Each kitten will develop at a different rate. At this point, they can usually have access to a larger room; they can be placed back in the cage or bathroom if they appear too scared and only want to hide. Some hiding places are ok, as long as kittens can be easily reached and picked up. A large room may overwhelm a timid kitten and cause increased fear. Bedrooms can be a problem. If kittens become frightened and go under the bed it can be difficult to get them out and stressful if you try to force them out.

Kitten-proof the room before letting the kittens out. Seal up any nooks and crannies where frightened kittens may enter and become trapped or inaccessible to you. Bathroom sinks often have spaces between the kickboard and the cabinet just large enough for the kitten. Block access to behind bookcases and heavy furniture where the kitten can become wedged. Be careful of open toilets and anything which can be climbed on and pulled down. Remove small and breakable objects as well as plants (many are poisonous).

5. Exposure to Other Humans

When the kittens no longer respond by biting and scratching, encourage family members and friends to handle them as often as possible. It is very important that they socialize with other humans, not just the person who is feeding and caring for them. Feral cats tend to bond with one human so they will adjust best to a new home if they are socialized with other humans before being adopted out.