Socializing feral cats

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

When a shelter asked me to socialize two four month old feral kittens, we both knew that 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 easily shared language and ability 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, 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. (Continue reading below)