To be honest, socializing scared kittens is one of the BEST parts of fostering. It is incredibly rewarding to take a nervous, scared little fuzz-ball (or a hissy, swatty spitfire!) and watch a personality slowly emerge from behind all that fear until you have a funny, goofy, calm, happy purr machine who melts into your arms.
So how do you socialize scared kittens? Read on for the step-by-step process to tame a feral kitten!
Socializing older feral kittens
Kittens really need to be socialized early, ideally before they are 3 months old but definitely before 5 or 6 months old. This is because of the skills they are learning during this crucial developmental period. Kittens that are completely feral can almost always be socialized before 8 weeks, and if you are willing to work hard, often up to 15 weeks or later. Feral kittens older than that often have a hard time adjusting to people. This is because their behavior has been set during that early time in their life. They will make great outdoor mousers or barn cats though!
Here’s a general outline of the process to tame a feral or undersocialized kitten over a few days or weeks.
Set up a safe space for an under socialized kitten
Make sure the kitten has a safe place where you can interact with them but they won’t get lost behind furniture. An empty bedroom, small bathroom, or a large crate is great.
Allow kittens to adjust to the new environment
Let the kitten(s) get acclimated to your environment. When you bring them into your house, they are in a new place with different sounds and smells. There are new people and perhaps animals, new materials underfoot, and new furniture towering around them. Give them a day or so to settle down and get used to everything. This doesn’t mean you won’t interact with them at all at first. Just stay mindful of all the sensory input that they are processing that you might not even notice!
Engage in passive interaction
Let the kitten get used to being around people. Spend time with the kittens, but don’t force physical interaction past what is necessary to administer medication or keep them healthy. Sit with them and read a book. Read a book out loud to them, watch a show, write an article, or anything else passive. Just hang out with them and let them ignore you and pretend you aren’t there. And as you move through the socialization process, the more different people you can have interact with them passively (and later, actively), the better.
Engage your kitten’s senses: smell, sight, hearing, taste, and touch
Start to engage them with tasty treats and wand toys. The more you can engage their senses (smell, sight, hearing), and get them out of fight-or-flight mode, the more quickly they’ll warm up to people. Offer super stinky, high value tasty treats while you’re with them. Wiggle a fun toy and see if you can get their eyes to focus on it. Maybe they’ll even chew it or swat at it. If you have a very thick, plush blanket or cat bed for them, the kittens might knead on it, engaging their sense of touch as well as their instincts to make biscuits.
How to get the most out of each interaction with your under socialized kitten
Keep it short and positive! Shorter interactions that happen more frequently are more effective at socializing your kitten than longer interactions that occur only a few times a day. If you can play a 2 minute game of wiggle-the-string 10 times a day, your kittens will come around much faster than if you had one 20 minute play session each morning.
Another way to think of it is to keep the kitten in “happy mode”. End each little engagement session while the cats are interested and happy. Try not to push them to the point of overwhelm – you want to leave them, on some level, wanting more! The kitten’s curiosity will be piqued by short, positive interactions. Even if they don’t consciously understand it yet, the kitten will begin to understand that humans are not scary. They will know that they will be safe after the interactions, even if they don’t know how to react at first.
Quiet kitten cuddles
Hold the kitten (one at a time, if you have several) in a gentle, quiet location. Start giving them head scratches, pet them, wrap them in a towel (like a kitten burrito!) if needed and sit with them on the sofa for ten minutes. This will help introduce them to new areas of the house. Quiet cuddles integrate them into the natural rhythm of your day. As a result, the kitten will feel a sense of belonging. Scared kittens will be nervous in a new situation, so keep the interaction short and positive.
Once the nervous kittens have warmed up to you, be sure to play energetically with toys with them. Always use very gentle touches with your hands. Many people like to play rough with their cats and kittens. However, that often teaches them to bite and scratch during play. This is especially important for formerly feral kittens who have just recently been socialized. You’ll want to cement that humans are gentle and friendly so that they have the best chance of acclimating to new people and new situations. Active play with your kittens will channel their energy, and give them exercise. The play will regulate their nervous systems. That way they can better assess when to be in flight or fight mode, and when to be relaxed.
With a little time and patience, young kittens who are completely unsocialized will come around completely and learn to love you! Learning to tame a feral kitten is a great skill to cultivate when fostering! It means you can find wonderful homes for all your foster kittens.