90Socializing ferals, (c) 2012-2016 Frania Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved
Four 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. 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 notes a more correct term for including human affinity might be “social referencing,” I say we need to figure out how to be more “socially relevant.”
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 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 following:
1) Late socialization can take months (many of them). Go slow to go fast with cats; do not rush them. Let them come to you.
2) Be a positive experience and person to interact with. Let your voice, willingness to play and food offerings be the initial attraction.
3) Announce your presence and your intentions with a soft friendly voice. Offer greetings on an approach.
4) 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.
5) 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.
6) Give them something to do. Scratching posts, climbing surfaces and toys (those fur covered mice that rattle are a must) afford an enriched environment, necessary for welfare.
7) 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).
8) 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 and 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.
(Copyright by Frania Shelley-Grielen) See the progression from top to bottom: Note how time and effort results 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 view.
Copyright by Frania Shelley-Grielen
Copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
-Want more? Find expanded and revised information in our new book Cats and Dogs (with tons more great material on bettering your relationships with your pets).
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