Taming Feral KittensBack to Cat Facts
The young offspring of feral cats or abandoned domestic cats, learn from their mothers to be wary and distrustful of humans, and to hide and defend themselves against adversaries. The tiny kittens will spit and hiss if approached by humans, and though small, will bite and scratch if not handled with respect for their wild natures. Remember that when dealing with feral cats, as with any wild animal, you should have a pre-exposure rabies vaccination and take care to keep your tetanus shots current. Minimize all risks by using the correct equipment.
Kitten season can extend from February though November. Some females have three litters each year, with a gestation period of approximately 65 days. Cats, like many wild animals, overproduce to ensure survival of the species, thus feral cats have many kittens.
Kitten mortality rates are usually very high—over 50 percent. Many become sick from diseases that may be treatable, such as respiratory infections, but without medical care and supportive treatment, the weak kittens usually perish. Those kittens who survive this initial period, often build up immunities to common cat diseases, and once controlled and stabilized, a colony remains healthy and viable for many years under the care and supervision of caretakers.
Catching Feral Kittens
Capture kittens between five and eight weeks, when they are developed enough to leave their mother but still young enough to be tamed. Use baited traps for safe handling of feral kittens. They may look sweet and innocent (and they are!) but one should remember they are wild animals even though they may look like any domestic kitten. They have wild natures and have been taught by their mothers to defend themselves with teeth and claws. Be careful!
Orphaned or Young Kittens
If kittens are under five weeks of age and unable to eat solid food, bottle feed them with kitten formula (KMR, Similac or Just Born) obtained from veterinary clinics or pet supply stores. Cow’s milk does not contain enough fat or protein for kittens. Very young kittens should be kept in a box lined with absorbent paper towels. Keep the box warm (around 90 degrees F.) during the first two weeks of life, using a heating pad covered with a towel, or an infrared lamp. For three-week-old kittens decrease the temperature to around 80 degrees F. If a kitten is too weak to drink from a bottle, feed her from an eye dropper. Massage the belly to stimulate digestion, and use a cotton ball or paper towel to stimulate elimination of urine and feces after each feeding. Moist cotton balls can be used to clean the area afterwards. Rub Vaseline on the anal area. The mother usually cleans the babies during the first few weeks so you will have to take on this task. Begin weaning from three to four weeks old. Mix canned kitten food with kitten formula and hand feed until the kittens are accustomed to eating on their own, then gradually change over completely to canned food.
Nearly all feral and stray kittens have internal parasites and need to be dewormed by a veterinarian. Any upper respiratory infections should be treated with antibiotics and eye ointments. Left untreated, they can cause severe health problems, pneumonia, eventual blindness or even death.
If you do not have kitten formula on hand (KMR –Kitten Milk Replacement available at your local petstore) use the following formula for temporary feeding only (12-24 hours). Add one egg yolk to eight ounces of cow’s milk for short term feeding. Feed kittens two tablespoons per four ounces of body weight daily. Divide total amount into equal feedings. Small weak kittens should be fed every three to four hours.
One of the most important things to remember is to keep the orphan kitten warm.
The Taming Process:
- Containment in cage.
- Periodic and brief handling with protective towel.
- Containment in small room.
- Exposure to other humans to help with socialization.
- Feed with baby food on a teaspoon or on your finger (do not feed baby food with onion in the ingredients. Onions are toxic to cats.)
- Placement in suitable adoptive home as soon as possible to get the kitten used to their new environments.
Containment in a Cage
A feral kitten is usually frightened at first and may hiss and spit at humans. Begin the taming process by confining the kitten in a cage/carrier in a small room. Feral kittens must first learn to feel safe. Visit frequently and talk to the kitten to get him used to your voice. Get him used to human voices by leaving a television on radio set on low volume. Feed the kitten moist cat food and leave dry kitten chow out at all times. If the kitten is still rather small or undernourished, pour some KMR kitten milk over the moist food.
Handling Feral Kittens
Select the least aggressive kitten, place a towel quietly but firmly over the kitten’s body (do not cover his head) and pick him up. If the kitten stays calm, pet gently on the head from behind. Never approach from the front—they may bite when approached. Grip securely by the skin at 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 relax your grip. Make this first physical contact brief. Go through this process with each kitten, and give them a special treat after all have been handled. Repeat this process as frequently as possible. Comb and brush the kitten gently as well. You can also offer the kitten baby food on your finger to get him used to your hands.
Containment in a Small Room
Each kitten will develop at a different rate. They should then have open access to the room. Any kittens who do not seem to be taming should be placed in a separate cage in another room. 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 littermates.
Exposure to Other Humans and Other Cats
If the feral kitten can be around another calm, friendly cat, this will help the taming process. Kittens are “copy-cats”. Give frequent treats by hand, and teach them to play with cat toys, such as the Cat Dancer or Cat Charmer. Interaction with humans during play can hasten the taming process and is highly recommended.
If you have to medicate, use liquid medicine in moist food, or crush tablets into baby food. Forcing tablets into a feral cat or kitten may cause trauma and can undo the taming process. Socialization with other humans is very important. However as stated before, feral kittens (or feral cats) tend to bond with one human so they adjust to a new home better if they have also socialized with other humans.
Placement in Adoptive Home
Some people are afraid to tell potential new adopters that the kittens are feral, for fear they will not be placed. The kittens may retain some feral instincts. 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. Most people who have lived with cats before will understand that many cats are shy and can act wild at times.
Kittens do best if there are no small children in the home. All the work you have done can easily be reversed by a child’s normal activity and noise. The most suitable home is a calm environment so the kittens feel secure. Ideally, two kittens should be placed together in a home, or with another cat or friendly dog or where an adult person is at home part of the day.
The taming process is extremely rewarding. Many tamed ferals will continue to be a bit elusive, while others will demand human contact constantly. People who have tamed formerly feral cats have reaped many pleasures from their company.