Socializing feral cats, (c) 2012-2019 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 to humans can take months (many of them) but given the correct
approach, it will happen. 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
- 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 offer the petting hand at the same level or lower than the cat’s head, the side of
the face is ideal.
This article is an original work and is subject to copyright. You may create a link to this
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author. Email inquiries to email@example.com
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 prog-
ression 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 worth-
while from the feline point of
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
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