The only difference between domestic and feral kittens is FEAR
We have established that domestic and feral cats are the same species, and indeed there can even be both domestic and feral cats in the same cat family. An abandoned cat will give birth to kittens which will grow up feral unless they are rescued soon after birth; otherwise, this is the start of a feral cat colony. It follows that the difference between domestic and feral cats is the direct result of their lifestyle and upbringing.
[See article: Feral or Domestic? That is the Question]
Whereas domestic cats are born and raised in the security of a human environment and used to being handled by people, feral kittens are born “in the wild” and hidden away by the mother. If unnoticed for several weeks they will develop their inherent wild instincts, regardless of whether the mother cat is feral or domestic. Once exposed to the outside world they will react aggressively or elusively towards anything unfamiliar – including humans. To become domesticated they have to be tamed, to be taught to live with humans without fear and finally to trust people to the extent that they can be handled as pets.
Question: how long does it take to tame a feral kitten?
Answer: this appears to depend on the following factors:
- The kitten’s age at the time of rescue
- Its previous experiences and traumas
- Time available, intelligence and commitment of the “tamer” (fosterer)
The kitten’s inherent personality – the siblings of a litter usually show varying degrees of tameness when they are first rescued. This often changes during the course of adjustment; the shyest often overtakes the others and becomes the most affectionate. It is hard to say whether this is the result of the extra attention that it inevitably receives or inherited temperament and disposition that only manifests itself when the kitten has calmed down.
THE AGE OF A KITTEN AT THE TIME OF RESCUE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR
If rescued newborn or up to 4 weeks of age feral kittens are practically as tame as their domestic born relatives. Both may spit faintly at anything unfamiliar but they can be easily held and handled. After that an undetected kitten may grow “wild” fast (even a 4-week-old can already back away from a rescuing hand or disappear into foliage or through holes in fences etc., but it is not able to run faster than a human).
A 5-week-old kitten can be quite elusive but if held closely, kept warm and cuddled intensively it usually calms down within a few days, provided it has not been chased during its rescue. Taming is made much more difficult when the kitten’s first impression of a human was a “monster” charging after it causing fear and panic which it will need time to forget. If a kitten does act aggressively it is very important to hold it as soon as possible. This is best done by picking it up from behind or lightly scruffing it and holding it close to your chest which usually calms the kitten down very quickly.
Unless they are found in an enclosed space in a safe corner where they can be instantly and swiftly picked up, feral kittens should be coaxed into a kitten trap baited with food rather than chased around. (If there is more than one animal to be trapped only a manual trap is safe, as one kitten eating can trigger an automatic trap door, which can hurt or even kill others on their way in).
Kittens of around 6 to 7 weeks old grow big and wild fast and therefore need to be handled as soon and as intensively as possible. I have found it most useful with kittens of this age to try to hold and cuddle them the very night I bring them home if at all possible. At this stage they may still be acting passively because they are utterly surprised and I use this frozen attitude to handle them before they regain their determination and defend themselves. For extra comfort and to discourage it from struggling I wrap it loosely in some woollen material and hold it against my chest. Gentle stroking from behind with my thumb up the forehead and down between the ears is especially soothing and effective (possibly as it reminds the kitten of being woken and washed by its mother). One the kitten is totally relaxed in my arms it can start little investigative walks on my lap, extending to the surface of the settee or bed, while I keep stroking it with my hands to reassure it and also to control it should it suddenly leap out of reach. We still follow it closely in the same way as it takes its first steps on the ground so that it cannot disappear into corners. After each short excursion the kitten is returned to the pen.
Kittens over 8 weeks of age are usually too fierce to be handled straight away and if they are 9 to 10 weeks or older a step-by-step taming programme will be required, unless previous feeders have gained their confidence on site by handling and stroking them. This is more likely when the mother cat is ex-domestic because she will bring them closer to humans and is more relaxed when she sees her kittens being approached.
The taming course needs to start at the earliest opportunity and even if very young feral kittens are taken in and reared with their mother, they need to be separated from her for short periods of time to be handled once they are 3 to 4 weeks old.
It is essential that newly rescued kittens be confined in a kitten pen. (see MDC, www.mdcexports.com) If a feral kitten is old enough to walk or crawl it will most certainly disappear behind or inside furniture. Frightened of humans it will squeeze itself into the most unsuitable tiny spaces where it will remain shivering with fear. People only familiar with the reactions of domestic cats may follow it around making comforting noises but this will only result in scaring the frightened creature even more. Even tiny kittens should be kept in a playpen, hospitalisation or queen’s cage, or just a spacious cat basket, so that the optimal regular feeding, warmth and litter training can be controlled. A very young kitten out of reach behind furniture can become dehydrated within hours and its life can be at stake.
If allowed to hide away, the kitten will continue its feral lifestyle and will not settle. Contrary to the belief of some people who would rather let the kitten have its freedom (assuming it will eventually come to them as a tame pet), the kitten will not learn fast enough, will not get used to being handled and will grow into a semi-feral cat which to its owner’s disappointment will not act like a pet.
STEP BY STEP TAMING
During its taming (or learning) process the kitten has to deal with three major problems
1. The new human environment with its smells, noises and activities –
Even an initially frantic kitten will soon recognise that its playpen is a safe zone from which it can observe all the activities in the room without being directly affected and will calm down quickly.
2. Humans approaching it –
If the cage is placed at floor level in a busy area of the room the kitten will get used to seeing humans at their full “threatening” height
3. Being touched and held –
Within the safe confines of the playpen, with the kitten within easy reach, it is easier for the tamer to acclimatise the kitten to being touched and handled. Not being able to run away, the kitten will soon lose the impulse to do so.
Before we dive into step-by-step taming one important warning:
NEVER TEASE A CAT WITH YOUR HANDS!
Some people think that we tame a cat by playing with it using our hands. They imitate the cat’s fast frisky movements in front of the cat’s face and feet, provoking the cat to lash out, scratch and bite, unaware that playing, for a cat, is also part of the process of learning to hunt and kill. A woman from Ealing came to choose two kittens and immediately started to tease them in this way and tap their faces playfully. Within seconds they retaliated and scratched and bit her fiercely – something that these two kittens had never done before. I rushed to stop her and explain why she must not tease a cat with her hands. Surprised she admitted she had always “played” with her previous cat in this manner, thinking it needed this type of “fun” and now wondered if she had in fact caused it to become an aggressive cat.
HAND FEEDING IS THE KEY TO WINNING A KITTEN’S TRUST
If the kittens are badly under-nourished or frantically scared and flying around the cage, we give them a few days to recover before we start the real work. Do not be tempted to release the kitten thinking you are doing it a favour.
We may even decide to place the cage in a quiet corner or in a raised position initially, which is also easier for the fosterer to observe and attend to feeding, cleaning etc.
From day one of our taming course, and for many more to come, the kitten will receive ALL its food from our fingers and only water is available between meals “for free”. We start by holding a large lump of food very still in front of the kitten, hoping it will smell it and start eating immediately. Instead, the kitten may be scared and back away or even lash out and hit the food out of our hand. In that case we make a small trail – one or two small pieces placed on the ground near the hungry kitten – leading to our hand resting flat and motionless on the ground. Usually kittens sniff their way along to the hand and eat from it within one or two minutes, otherwise we repeat. Soon we can hold the food lump in front of its face; other kittens in the pen will imitate the braver kitten and come to eat as well. In that case, use very large chunks otherwise your fingers may be eaten as well! When the kittens have lost interest we take all the food away until we start again later. The kittens very soon become used to our hands and start licking the fingers clean. After a few days they will come to the entrance of the cage to be fed and when their tails go up we know we are making progress.
At this stage we can introduce the next step. We only start feeding the meal as usual from our fingers and as the kitten continues its meal from the plate we stroke it very briefly down its side with the outside of our “dirty” feeding fingers. The kitten will look round alarmed only to find the familiar hand, which it will sniff and recognise, and reassured it will continue eating from the plate. This action has to be repeated many times and whenever the kitten shows surprise we show it our fingers in the food offering position, always very slowly to give it time to sniff and think. The kitten may begin to purr at this stage, however, be warned – this does not mean that it is now tame like a domestic cat, where purring indicates affection and readiness to be picked up.
A feral kitten still has a long way to go, and purring may only indicate contentment, when its tummy fills up for instance.
With or without food we use this gesture for many weeks or months to come whenever we approach the kitten in its cage, because it provokes a positive reflex in the kitten. Expecting food it raises its tail and is willing to be stroked and in time it may butt against the hand expecting to be touched, a sign of confidence in the feeder. Yet, even after many months, we still start every stroking session showing the “holding” fingers first, to keep this reflex alive and wisely teach this link to the new owner once the kitten goes to a home.
When the kitten has become tame enough to be released in to the room, this gesture – especially when holding some Coley or other tasty tit-bit – will be indispensable when wanting to attract the kitten to the feeder.
LIFTING AND HOLDING THE KITTEN
Once the kitten enjoys being stroked we gradually teach it to be lifted up. This involves touching it under the stomach and chest, a sensation that the kitten has to learn to accept gradually. While eating distracts the kitten we can stroke it with one hand firmly over its back and rest the other underneath for as long as the kitten will tolerate it. If the kitten frets we stop and start again later being careful to avoid any gripping or tickling effect.
The next step is to gently place a hand under the chest and lift it so the front feet slightly lose the feel of the ground. This needs to be repeated several times and gradually the height increased until the kitten is used to it. At that stage we place the other hand under its back legs and very briefly hold the kitten in both hands just a few inches high inside the pen. We always place it back on the ground on all fours and comfort it by stroking before its reaction of surprise turns to panic. Still inside the pen we gradually pick the kitten up higher during the next few days to get it used to feeling safe and still in our hands. Eventually we lift it out of the pen for a short moment and immediately rest it against our chest for warmth and comfort, stroking gently from behind over its head and back. The kitten’s head should be facing the open cage door so it can be put back at the slightest sign of nervousness. Trying to win over the kitten by holding onto it by force is not only bound to be unsuccessful, and possibly harmful, but totally against the spirit of our teaching which aims at gaining the kitten’s understanding and confidence – the basis of all bonding.
RELEASING THE KITTEN INTO THE ROOM
When the kitten has become tame and handleable it can finally be let out of the cage. This can be done in stages and initially when the kitten is hungry!
At first it should be kept in one room to overcome any initial nervousness. Make sure all the doors and windows are firmly shut (a kitten can squeeze through an inch gap and it can tamper with levers and prise windows open).
This must be the same room that the kitten has seen from its playpen. In order to maintain the bond between kitten and feeder we only allow the kitten to be loose in the room for limited periods of time. We can begin by feeding the kitten on the open cage door while we are stroking it as usual and then putting the food just in front of the cage. It is most important that we do not follow the kitten around or chase it as it explores the room, as this will only make it run away from us. Instead we tempt it to come to us with treats and toys; tasty food held out with the familiar feeding gesture or a toy trailed past us or onto our laps. It can be helpful to keep a small plate of attractively smelling food next to your knees to encourage the kitten to approach you. We only try to touch the kitten from the side or from behind unless it approaches us with its tail up expecting to be cuddled. During these sessions we keep a dish of food in the open playpen to entice it back inside later for another handling session.
IN ITS NEW HOME
Unless the kitten has been rescued very young and has become as tame as any domestic born kitten we take it to its new home with its playpen, its own little house where it feels safe and can be handled immediately. We teach the new owner all the tricks of the trade, including a short period of hand feeding to settle the kitten in fast. We encourage the owner to say the kitten’s name when feeding to get it used to being called, which is helpful later when the kitten is released into the room and also very much later when it goes outside.
Intelligent people understand the benefits of this approach and enjoy the challenge and the sense of achievement when the kitten has bonded with them.
The end result!
THE TIME FACTOR
Taming feral kittens is a race against time because people want to adopt kittens as young as possible. They prefer a nervous seven-week-old to a tame four month old. If the kitten is not rescued until it is ten to twelve weeks old the taming can take several weeks, if not months. Only two months later it will need neutering and if a home is not found soon after it is not regarded as a kitten any longer. There is only a slim possibility of finding homes for these youngsters and this is especially hard during the summer, with an abundance of even younger kittens, so we wait for the chance during the winter months, hoping for those rare, unselfish animal lovers to come and choose a kitten that needs special love and patience….people who seem to be like gold dust.
REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT !
It is not only important that each stage which leads to handling the kitten is repeated countless times before the next one can be attempted, but also much later, when the kitten has become practically tame, the sequence: SNIFF – TOUCH – STROKE – LIFT – HOLD should be repeated whenever you approach the cage as the basis of every interaction because it gives the kitten a sense of security and establishes a positive attitude to us humans.
©Elke de Vries 2002 – CAT 77 Fieldwork Advisor