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Taming Feral Kittens
This information is courtesy of Alley Cat Allies (ACA).
Feral kittens are the offspring of feral female cats or of lost or abandoned domestic cats that have not been spayed or neutered. Feral cat colonies originate when these cats congregate near a food source such as garbage dumpsters, behind restaurants and hospitals, and near military and college cafeterias.
The domestic cat is a descendant of the African Wild Cat (Felis Lybica). The wild instincts will take over when a domestic cat enters a feral colony, and a mother will teach her kittens to fear humans. These kittens will bite and scratch to defend themselves against what they perceive to be a threat, namely you. If you intend to handle feral cats and kittens, friendly or not, you should have pre-exposure rabies vaccinations and current tetanus shots.
Jump to catching and taming instructions.
If you are involved in a feral colony, the following information is important:
Make sure you have your rabies and tetanus vaccinations current. In most areas of the U.S. other than extremely cold northern regions, kitten season can extend from February through November. Some ferals have three litters each year, with a gestation period of approximately 65 days. All animals overproduce to ensure survival of the species, thus feral cats have many kittens. Mortality rates can be over 50% among kittens as the sick and weak perish. Those surviving the first six to eight weeks usually build up immunities to common cat diseases, and once controlled and stabilized, a colony reamins healthy and viable for many years under the care and supervision of caretakers. All newcomers must be trapped, sterilized and eartipped before returning to the site. Tame cats and kittens should be placed in homes.
Ferals become extremely stressed in captivity. Stress can cause illness and a mother's inability to care properly for kittens, especially when giving birth. If problems occur, such as her inability to tear open the amniotic sac to expel the kitten, she will not allow you near enough to help and the kitten will die. For this reason we do not encourage feral births in homes or clinics. But in cases when this cannot be avoided Alley Cat Allies has information on the best way to deal with this situation.
If your local shelter is euthanizing domestic kittens for lack of homes, you may want to consider trapping any pregnant feral females and spaying them.
Kittens may be vaccinated and altered at 12 weeks old and returned to the colony instead of trying to tame them and place them in homes. Sometimes it is difficult to properly socialize older feral kittens, and you will not be using up valuable adoptive homes.
Many young feral kittens can become affectionate and loving companions. They need to be placed in adoptive homes as early as possible, because they tend to bond with one person. Be aware that a young feral cat who may be completely tame and loving with one person, can revert to their wild state when placed in another home. It can sometimes take between six months to one year, or longer, for that cat to bond again.
Another important point for the cat rescuer to be aware of is that if you fail to find homes for all the kittens you rescue, you could end up with a dozen or more cats in your own home! This happens frequently, so be careful.
Be sure to trap and spay/neuter the kittens' parents so the breeding cycle does not continue. The mother cat should have stopped nursing at least ten days prior to surgery. Remember to tell the veterinarian she was recently nursing.
Kittens will make themselves visible when they are about four to five weeks old, once they begin eating solid food. The ACA recommends capturing kittens between the ages of five and eight weeks, when they are developed enough to leave their mother but still young enough to be tamed.
They will be hard to catch! Use your gloved hands or a baited trap. We recommend using baited humane traps for safe handling, for your sake and the kitten's.
Traps may be ordered from ACES at URL:
The Taming Process
Kittens may be taken from the mother after weaning, at approximately five to six weeks old. The process of taming kittens can take from two to six weeks depending on their age and degree of wildness.
First and foremost, any person attempting this process should be totally committed and patient. Do not take on too many kittens at one time. Be cautious when you work with ferals - remember they are wild and will defend themselves if they feel cornered or threatened. Never handle a new or strange feral kitten until you know how they will react to you. Always wear long sleeves with gloves kept handy. If one escapes from a container, do not grab the kitten with your bare hands. If you get bitten, clean the wound immediately and seek medical advice. Scratches are usually less likely to become infected, but need to be cleaned carefully as well. If you cannot catch an escaped kitten or cat, set a trap and withhold food to make them hungry enough to enter a baited trap.
The steps involved in taming a feral kitten are as follows:
1.Containment in cage
2.Periodic and brief handling with protective towel
3.Containment in small room
4.Exposure to other humans
5.Placement in suitable adoptive home as soon as possible
1. Containment in Cage
A feral kitten is usually extremely frightened at first and may hiss and spit at humans. Begin with a cage in a small room and for the first two days do not attempt handling. They must learn to feel safe. Visit them frequently and talk to them but resist touching. Always move slowly. Leave a radio playing soft music in the room with them. You can get them used to human voices and sounds by leaving a television set on low volume.
After two days select the least aggressive kitten if you have more than one, place a towel over the kitten and pick it up. If the kitten stays calm, pat gently on the head from behind. Never approach from the front. Initally hands frighten feral kittens and they may attack if approached from the front. If the kitten remains calm, grip securely by the nape of the neck, put the towel on your lap and set the kitten on the towel. Stroke the kitten's body while speaking in soft, reassuring tones, then release your grip. Make this first contact brief.
Go through this process with each kitten, and give them a special treat after all have been handled. Repeat the process as frequently as possible. Comb and brush the kitten gently as well.
3. Containment in Small Room
Within a week the kittens should have made considerable progress, although each kitten will develop at a different rate. They should have access to one room and be placed in the cage only if necessary. Any kittens who do not seem to be taming should be placed in a separate cage in another room away from the others. This will allow you to work with the kitten more frequently and will increase dependence on a human. It will also prevent perpetuation of wildness in litter mates. In some litters, each member must be isolated in order to not reinforce wildness in the group.
4. Exposure to Other Humans
If the feral kitten can be around another calm, friendly cat it will help the taming process. Kittens are "copy-cats" and will follow the tame cat's behavior, coming over to be petted if they hear the tamer cat purring while being petted. Give frequent treats by hand, and teach them to play with cat toys, such as the Cat Dancer. Interaction with humans during play can hasten the taming process. If you have to medicate, use liquid medicine in moist food, or crush tablets into baby food (the meaty variety). Forcing tablets down a feral cat or kitten causes severe trauma and can undo the taming process.
When kittens no longer respond by biting, encourage friends to handle them as often as possible. Socialization with other humans is very important. Feral cats tend to bond with one human so they adjust to a new home better if they have also socialized with other humans.
5. Placement in Adoptive Home
Some people are afraid to tell adopters the kittens are feral, for fear they will not be placed. We believe this is a mistake. The cats or kittens may always retain some feral instincts, however latent they may be. We have to change perceptions about feral cats. Education is important, and people have to be made aware of the millions of feral cats living in alleys who need our understanding and help, not our fear and loathing.
Kittens do best if there are no small children in the home. All the work you have done can easily be shattered by normal kid activity and noise. This is vital to remember when placing kittens for adoption. The most suitable home is a calm environment so the kittens feel secure. Ideally two kittens should be placed together or in a home where an adult human is at home during the day.
If you place a feral kitten in a new home after the taming process the new gaurdian should read this fact sheet and go through similar procedures, since a new home can be very confusing and traumatic for a feral kitten. Most soon settle down happily into their new environment and start enjoying the luxuries offered!
Early Age Sterilization
As cats can reproduce before they are 5 to 6 months old, many shelters and veterinarians concerned about the killing of millions of healthy animals in the U.S. shelters, are recommending "early age sterilization". Kittens can be safely sterilized from 8 weeks old. If certain procedures are followed they recover from the surgery much quicker than older cats. Often people who adopt kittens from shelters do not have the animals altered and they are allowed to reproduce, adding to the severe crises of overpopulation. Feral colonies are the result of the failure of many who allow unaltered cats to roam.