Socializing ferals, (c) 2012-2018 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, how long the handling last and how consistently it is done, can
make all the difference in whether these kittens like humans or are fearful of them.  
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 following:

  • 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 control.

  • 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.

Feral kittens can be socialized with the right timing, patience and approach
(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
Ferals require multiple positive experiences to create trust
Announce your presence and intentions when greeting
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Request a consultation
Hand feeding is a great way to create trust
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
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