By Kathleen O’Malley, Director of Education, NYC Feral Cat Initiative of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals
Cat rescuers who practice Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) are sometimes tempted to forget the “R” in TNR and decide to foster a skittish outdoor kitten in hopes that he or she will “come around” and become an adoption candidate. Taking kittens in for adoption during a TNR project often promotes goodwill in the neighborhood. Or, as winter approaches, rescuers may feel even more tempted to keep feral kittens off the street for good, fearing for their lives. But what to do when a few weeks have gone by and the kitten is still hiding under the bed?
All kittens need to be socialized by humans in order to be suitable for adoption. As animals who are both predators and prey, cats instinctively must decide at an early age – about eight weeks – whether or not to trust humans to touch them. Kittens under eight weeks are easily tamed, but always trap them if they run away. Grabbing feral kittens will sabotage their socialization. For kittens who haven’t been gently handled by eight weeks of age, it takes increasingly longer to convince them that human hands aren’t potentially deadly weapons.
The NYC Feral Cat Initiative teaches tried-and-true taming methods to help rescuers successfully socialize kittens. With older kittens and adults, though, there is no guarantee of success, so always have a contingency plan in place. We recommend starting them with a two-week trial period; if there’s no progress by then, we recommend neutering, eartipping, and returning them to their colony before it becomes unfamiliar to them.
Here are our basic tips to ensure successful socialization. Applying them consistently will ensure the best outcome:
Freedom of choice. The best way to get any cat to do anything is to let them think it’s their idea. Never try to coerce the kitten into contact. Cats have to choose socialization over fear – it’s our job to make it easy for them.
Location, location, location. Work with the kitten in a place where you can get on the same level and comfortably interact without having the kitten feel towered over, “backed into a corner,” or being about to hide out of reach. Block off that space under the guest room bed!
Food, glorious food. 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. Food gives kittens a compelling incentive to welcome you into their world.
Tough love. Never put food down and walk away. Feed the kitten in your presence, progressively pulling the dish as close to you as possible with each meal. Stay with the kitten until they have finished eating and then take any remaining food away when you leave. Always leave water, but no food if you’re not there. No free rides!
Eating out of your hand. When the kitten is eating from a dish right beside you with your hand touching the dish, offer something tasty off your finger. A favorite is commercial baby food made of pure turkey, chicken, or beef. Let them learn to lick from a plastic spoon if at first they want to chew your finger instead of licking it. Your hand reaching close to them, without them retreating in fear, is the goal.
We have contact! Use food on your finger or a bowl in your lap to lead the kitten up into contact with your body by their choice. Once they’re comfortable with that, you can gradually initiate contact with petting in the head and shoulder area, then around the body, and eventually picking the kitten up. If the kitten regresses at any stage, go back to a stage that they’ve mastered and patiently work forward again. Eventually, you should be able to “take off the training wheels” and handle the kitten between meals.
For more in-depth kitten socialization techniques, visit www.nycferalcat.org or take the NYC Feral Cat Initiative’s free workshop, Taming Feral Kittens for Adoption (bit.ly/TFK180918).