Lost or abandoned domestic female cats teach their offspring to be “feral.” These latent instincts, acquired from their African Wildcat ancestors, help them to survive in nature. Feral cats are elusive, often nocturnal, and usually fearful of humans. Like most wild animals, they will not attack if unprovoked but will defend themselves if threatened or cornered. Their strongest instinct is to run. If they feel trapped and escape is blocked, they will bit or scratch. Never try to catch a feral by hand. Always use a humane trap. I suggest a semi-heavy long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and thick gloves for your protection, depending on the age of the feral.
Any person attempting to tame kittens should be totally committed and patient. The taming process is certainly worthwhile. You are saving lives and producing affectionate, loving companions. The keyword is patience. That is something that cannot be stressed enough. I will go as far as to say almost any feral can be socialized to some degree. Some may never be cuddly lap cats, just as some may become completely domestic. Commitment, time, patience and love will tell the tale.
Feral kittens should not be taken from their mothers before they are four weeks old if this is possible, five to eight weeks being optimum. Their chances for survival are lowered if taken sooner. You can work with up to six kittens at one time if you have a willing partner in your effort and some experience. I would recommend one kitten for your first attempt at socializing. How long will it take? Ideally, with everything going for you, plus a pit of luck, with a kitten five to eight weeks old, two to four weeks would be an average.
Assuming you already have the kitten, the socializing process can be broken into five stages:
1. Confinement in a cage or carrier.
2. Repeated and brief handling with a protective cloth, such as a heavy towel or small blanket.
3. Confinement in a small room that is escape-proof.
4. Exposure to other humans.
5. Adoption in a suitable home.
Remember, this kitten now sees you as a threat. It is terrified almost to the point of shock in some cases. Feral kittens should be checked out by a veterinarian and tested for diseases contagious to other cats before you bring them home. Keep them isolated from your pet cats, wash your hands and wear a smock (or change clothes between handling visits) to protect against the spread of disease from the kittens to pets.
If a trap was used to capture the kitten, transfer the kitten to a cage or a pet carrier large enough for a small litter box and bedding for the kitten. This carrier should be kept in a quiet room, where there is not a lot of traffic. You want the kitten to calm down. You must also provide water and food. Some carriers have bowels that you can fill without opening the carrier. For the next three to four days, visit the kitten often. Sit on the floor, talk very softly and do not touch the kitten. Hint for bedding: use some piece of your clothing that has your scent on it.
After two or three days, place a towel over the kitten and pick it up in the towel. If the kitten stays calm, pet it gently on the head from behind. Never approach them from the front. A hand coming at the kitten frightens them, which may cause them to hiss or bite. 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. Now for a treat, like baby food off a spoon. This has won over many ferals. 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 the kitten start to transfer its need to you. It is also extremely important for the health of the kitten to remove fleas as soon as possible (most feral cats have fleas). Flea combs work great. Kittens become anemic from flea infestation and can easily fall prey to illnesses in this condition. Combing also helps the bonding process.
Never stare at a kitten for a prolonged period. They may take this as aggression. Try to be on the same level as they are on the floor. You look like a giant when you are standing. You might try a toy now. Perhaps a knee sock tied into a ball or tied to a short stick, for interactive play. Remember, you want the kitten to bond with you. I have gone as far as sleeping close to the carrier on the floor for a night or two.
3. Confinement in a small room
within five to seven days, the kittens should have settled in, gotten past the terror stage, and started to bond with you. Every kitten is different. Some come around quickly and some are shier. Nothing is set in stone when dealing with a cat. Now you need to start building up the trust level. You do this by letting the kitten out of the cat. You will need to confine the kitten to a small room. This will allow him some freedom and he won’t feel so trapped. Remember that before you do this, you will need to kitten-proof the room. This is like baby-proofing. Make sure it is escape-proof, look for climbing hazards, cords that can be chewed on, that type of thing.
As soon as the kitten is no longer responding to you by biting, scratching or hissing, it is time to start to expose him to other humans. Ferals tend to bond with one human. This is fine if you are going to keep the kitten. If you want to adopt the kitten out, it’s time to make new friends. Do this slowly, one new human at a time. Don’t have a party or you’ll undo all the good you have done.
Many people make up applications or contracts for the process of adopting out a cat. This is a good idea. You may also want to inspect the home in which the kitten will live. Also, always ask for a donation for the kitten. People who get a kitten free may not value the kitten as much as they should, or they may want a free kitten to sell to a lab. Be careful. You are the only protection the kitten has against a bad owner.
Kittens can be placed at eight weeks if they have become socialized. Temporary vaccinations can be given at six weeks and permanent vaccinations from twelve weeks. I feel strongly that all feral cats should be altered. My own preference is for this not to happen before four months. It is traumatic for any cat, but a feral needs a little more time to adjust to people before being anesthetized and left to sleep it off in a strange cage at the vet’s office.
When screening prospective new homes, you should look for several things. Feral kittens will do better in a calm, secure environment where there are no small children. The ideal home would be one in which you could place two kittens together and they would be indoor-only cats.