Socializing Feral Kittens

Socializing feral kittens—or kittens who have not been handled by humans at a young age—requires time and patience, and the results are not always predictable. Some feral kittens may begin to purr and bond with humans within a few days, while others may never tolerate human touch.  

Factors Affecting Socialization

The chances for successfully socializing a feral kitten depend on various factors, including age, inborn temperament and the quality of the socialization process. Many feel that feral kittens must be rescued at six weeks or younger or cannot be domesticated. While younger kittens are typically easier to socialize, there are many stories of much older kittens who tamed down and some younger ones who did not.

Two factors that may offset age are the kitten's genetic degree of feralness and inborn personality. A kitten whose family line is feral further back will be harder to tame while a kitten with a naturally calmer, trusting personality will bond more easily with humans.

Socialization a Gradual Process

Whatever the kitten's background, socializing a feral kitten requires much patience, insight, determination, and resourcefulness. The goal is to gradually adapt the kitten to human touch and the human environment. Often the kitten (usually with a littermate or two) is placed in a vertical kennel with shelving. This provides the kitten a safe place from which to observe human beings and experience the sights, sounds and smells of a home. It also prevents the kitten from running and hiding, allowing the socializer to talk to, play with, and pet and hold the kitten. A small room with no hiding places is also ideal.

Usually the socializer holds the kitten several times a day, providing gentle stroking, at first a few minutes and then increasingly longer, based on how the kitten is adapting. Sturdy gloves or a towel may be needed at first as the kitten may hiss, lash out with its claws, or dash about the cage. A small food treat can be provided after each holding session to reinforce it as a positive experience. Distracting the kitten with interactive toys held by humans or petting it with a back scratcher are other ways to decrease the cat's anxiety around humans in a nonintrusive way.

As the kitten becomes more relaxed being held and in the presence of humans, it can be let out for supervised free play. One sign of progress is when the kitten begins to rub against the cage and purr in anticipation of being held or played with. Some socializers use a harness collar to prevent the kitten from hiding when outside the cage. Eventually, the kitten is totally freed from the cage, but this should not happen until the kitten does not run or hide from humans but is quite comfortable in their presence.

If possible and necessary, the kitten can then be introduced to one room before it is allowed free in the entire home. The rate of socialization of feral kittens again will depend on the factors listed above and most importantly the regular and consistent touch and interaction provided by a human being.