Socializing ferals, (c) 2012-2017 Frania Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved

Some months ago a shelter asked me to socialize two four month old feral kittens.  Four
months is long to do this kind of work.  The sensitive period to socialize kittens to
humans (and other animals) is recognized as ending at seven weeks.  When handling
kittens before seven weeks, the duration of handling and the consistency of the handler
are key components in effectively engendering feline affinity for humans.  Kittens (and
cats) can be worked with after the seven week period but it will much take longer and
require much more creativity and patience.  It is the nature of the cat to take time to
take the measure of its environment and the assessment by the cat is done in “cat
time.”  Absent language and being able to trust in the permanence of place and our
intentions the cat must fully experience the human environment as friendly,
appealing and most of all safe.

Cat behavior expert, Dennis Turner, notes that shy cats not socialized to humans are
most often more wary of new experiences and require multiple positive experiences
with new people to trust them.  This means the work you do with these cats must be
about creating long lasting intensive positive experiences with humans.  Turner also
found that these former ferals will react more strongly to a single negative experience.  
Scare these cats by going too fast or too close too soon or handle in the wrong way and
there is a whole lot of damage control to be done.  This process from feral to former feral
entails fostering trust that living with humans is a good idea, you need to figure out
the timing and the method to get the message across—how to make the relationship
worthwhile from the feline point of view.  As Turner points out, working with cats after
the sensitive period is not truly “socializing” them as they have already been well
socialized to their environment including the animals that are a part of it.  He agrees
with other experts who have proposed a more correct term for including human
affinity as “social referencing,” I say we, as humans, need to figure out how to be more
“socially relevant” to these cats.

The kittens, now about seven months old, actively solicit petting and contact,
especially before eating and after play.  They are the most comfortable with me since I
have spent the most time working with them but with toys, my husband and the pet
sitter and new people with toys can approach them.   

Would that the hard luck story of these street kittens had more of the "rescue" appeal
that dogs enjoy.   If it did, finding homes for cats like these would be easier.  The truth is
that not everybody likes cats.  They hiss when scared and scratch when cornered or
defending themselves.  Their breeding habits are smelly and noisy.  They mostly do not
come up to you like dogs do and beg for attention and affection.  Then again they're too
scared to do that, scared of what we might do to them and we blame them for that. But
cats are in desperate need of rescuing; living on the streets and in back yards and
vacant lots without shelter, too cold in winter and too hot in summer and then there is
rain.  They are often hungry and scrounging for food.  And the streets are dangerous; a
second too close to a passing car can be crippling and fatal.  Humans can be dangerous
for a street cat, risky to be around, you are not welcome in every backyard, things get
thrown at you and bullies can find you and hurt you.

Winter is almost here and there are too many cats on the streets.  And now there are
two more kittens who have started to believe that trusting humans is a good and safe
thing to do, ready for a family of their own that can go slowly with them and be OK if
they startle at first a lot and then a little as time goes by.  The promises we make.  

Time and consideration are the magic ingredients with any cat, add to that the

  • Late socialization can take months (many of them).  Go slow to go fast with cats;
    do not rush them.  Let them come to you.

  • Be a positive experience and person to interact with.  Let your voice, willingness
    to play and food offerings be the initial attraction.

  • Announce your presence and your intentions with a soft friendly voice.  Offer
    greetings on an approach.

  • Sitting on their level and reading out loud will accustom cats to your presence
    and your voice; reading prevents unwelcome eye contact and guarantees a
    modulated tone.

  • Classical music has been proven to soothe animals; a classical radio station will
    also offer the added benefit of associating the pleasing tones of human voices (the
    announcers) with classical melodies.

  • Give them something to do and somewhere to do it.  Scratching posts and puzzle
    feeders allow cats to perform natural and necessary behaviors like scratching,
    "hunting" and playing.  Climbing surfaces and toys (those fur covered mice that
    rattle are a must) afford an enriched environment, necessary for welfare.  Cats
    love boxes or beds with raised sides.  For the feral, this is vital to allow them to
    feel secure in their new environment where they have limited choice and

  • Interactive play is huge in creating positive relationships between human and
    cat, relieves stress and engages cats in intrinsically rewarding activities that
    mirror natural and necessary hunting behaviors.  Cat dancers, fishing wand
    toys or even pieces of string are great tools, remember to pass the object across or
    away from a cat’s line of vision to engage them.  Aim for at least five minutes of
    play in the morning or evening (or both).

  • Hand feeding is a great way to create trust but make sure to incorporate petting
    into the ritual lest the cat limit the contact to only feeding times.  To do this,
    start with hand feeding by placing several high value treats on the flat of your
    palm which you are holding at muzzle level.  Allow the cat to approach,
    remember cats have poor vision up close so several treats will help the cat to
    identify them with greater ease by sight and smell.  Keep your hand flat and
    allow the cat to take the treats.  Keep your voice soft and acknowledge.  Once the
    cat is consistently taking treats, gradually introduce petting using the hand
    that is not doing the feeding.  Make sure to introduce the petting hand at the
    same level or lower than the cat’s head, the side of the face is ideal.

Turner, D.C. (2000). The human cat relationship. In D.C. Turner & P. Bateson (Eds), The Domestic Cat;
the biology of its behaviour
, (2nd ed., pp. 194-197). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge.

(Copyright by Frania Shelley-Grielen) Notice the progression
from top to bottom in how time and effort result in
more relaxed looking kittens
"This process from feral to former
feral entails fostering trust that living
with humans is a good idea, you need
to figure out the timing and the
method to get the message across—
how to make the relationship
worthwhile from the feline point of
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
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