Socializing feral cats,copyright (c) 2021 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 exper-
iences 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,
the pet sitter and new people 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 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 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 and
    remember raised resting spaces - in every room.  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
    three to five minutes of play at the same time in the morning or evening
    (or even better, 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 or just below muzzle level.  Allow
    the cat the time 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
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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 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
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
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813

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