Taming Feral Kittens

For all intents and purposes, feral cats are wild animals. If you find a feral kitten, you can, through love and a whole lot of patience, tame it. It is rare that an adult feral cat can be tamed, but these same techniques can be applied to adult cats, and is some cases we have seen success.

By taming a feral kitten, you are preparing that kitten to be placed for adoption. You will be turning a hissy, spitting little demon into a sweet, playful kitten that can have a wonderful indoor home. It can be a long and time-consuming process, depending on the age of the kitten (the younger the kitten, the more easily that kitten can be tamed), but taming a feral kitten will be one of the most rewarding acts of kindness you will ever give to another creature. We suggest trying to tame kittens 6 weeks and younger. After that, taming is very difficult and might not be possible.

Set up a temporary home.
If you have a litter of kittens, the first thing you need to do is separate them. If you do not separate the kittens, your rate of success goes way down and the time it takes to tame that kitten will go way up. Place each kitten into it’s own large kennel, along with a comfy place to sleep, a litter box, and dry food and water. If you need kennels, we can loan you some. It can also be beneficial to leave a TV or radio playing to get the kittens used to human voices and sounds. Let the cat get used to its new environment for 24 hours before moving on to the next steps.

Handling Feral Kittens
Feral kittens will hiss, spit, and even bite you if scared enough. To a feral kitten, you are a predator, and the hissiest kitten is often the most scared. Wear gloves and protective clothing if you feel it is necessary. It can be scary reaching your hand in to pick them up and hold them, but if you don’t, the kitten will never come around. Pick up a feral kitten from behind, on it’s scruff – firmly grasp the the loose skin at the top of the neck of the cat, and pick it up. Immediately draw the cat into your stomach and secure it with a towel or your arm. Caress the cats head, cheek, chin, and back. Talk softly while petting the cat for about 5 minutes at first, and increase the duration each time, so that you are eventually spending 20-30 minutes several times a day with the kitten. Do this as often as you can, and before long, the cat will look forward to your visits. This is the single most important act to do that will tame up that kitten. We have seen some success with kitten tamers making a pouch by turning up the bottom of a sweatshirt and securing the back so the kitten is close by your body warmth. Carry the kitten around in this pouch so long as its secure.

Food Rewards
Feeding time is a great way to move the cat along in the socialization process. Keep dry food and water in the kennel at all times. Feed the kitten wet food only while you are in the room and watching, so that the kitten associates you with the yummy stuff. Put wet food down next to the kitten. If the cat won’t eat with you standing next to it, move back until it does. If it won’t eat it at all, remove the food and try again another day. Once the kitten starts eating the wet food, move closer and closer until your hand is next to food, and eventually, touch and pet the kitten while it is eating. If the kitten stops eating when you get too close, back off and try again later. Remember, patience is key!

Get some soft treats, and start giving them to your kitten. Place them next to the kitten. Before you know it, the kitten will be taking them directly from your hand.

Playtime
Do not start this step till your kitten is comfortable being held. Take the kitten out of it’s kennel, making sure it is in a safe room, with the door shut and nowhere to hide or get away. Get yourself a toy on a string, or just a string, and encourage playing. If one of the other littermates is more comfortable than another, let them play together. Kittens will learn from watching each other, so if one starts going for the string, the others will soon follow. Kittens do not usually start playing till around 3-4 weeks of age. Never let a kitten attack your hand – that can encourage bad behavior later in life!

Note:  All string toys used for any cat should be thick and not easily ingested. Anything thinner than a shoelace is too thin and once a cat gets it into it’s mouth, it is unable to spit it back out. Cats can eat a long piece of string and eventually wind up with a very expensive vet bill if not death.

Meeting New Friends
It is common for feral kittens to become attached to their caregiver, but still act feral around newcomers. Once your kitten is comfortable being held, invite other people in your household or friends to hold, play, and feed the kitten. This will help get your kitten adjusted to new people and experiences. The more people your kitten meets, the more socialized and ready for adoption she will be!

Making Progress
Taming feral kittens is time-consuming and often frustrating if things don’t progress as quickly as you had hoped.  So how do you know you’re making progress?  Every kitten is different, but there are a few things to watch for to let you know that you are on the right track.

You’ll know you’re making progress when:

  • The kitten begins purring while being held and petted
  • The kitten is eating wet food or treats out of your hand
  • The kitten is actively playing with you

These may all happen at once, or each milestone may take its own sweet time.

What if your kitten never comes around?
First of all, don’t blame yourself.  Taming feral kittens is a tough job, and not every kitten can be tamed.  Sometimes you will end up with one super sweet kitten, while its litter-mate remains shy and scared, even though you took all the same steps.  It is rare, but if this happens, the best thing to do is spay or neuter your kitten at 8 weeks of age, give the appropriate vaccinations, and find your kitten a suitable outdoor home.  We can help you relocate an outdoor cat if you decided to go this route.

More Resources
Taming Feral Kittens (Feral Cat Coalition)

Socializing Feral Kittens Parts 1-3 from the Urban Cat League:

[Printable Version]