Helping Feral Kittens
Happy Day! The first kitten just went to her new home. OJ, the little orange and white female, is going to a good friend and yoga coach, Scott Anderson and his wife Collette. They both adore cats and have moved heaven and earth for them if the need arises (think the feline version of Willie’s surgery and year long rehab). I am still all oxytocin-y about the whole thing. Here’s Scott and the little girl right before they went home:
In hopes it is helpful to others, here are some things I’ve done (so far anyway, this adventure is far from over) and some things I’ve learned along the way:
CAPTURING: It was clear early on that taming the kittens so that they let me catch them in the barn was not going to happen. If you want to start socializing kittens when they are within their defined period of socialization (3 to 7 wks, although that doesn’t mean you can’t do it later) you most likely need to capture them with some kind of trapping method. Lots of folks on FB told me they had had luck with trad’l live traps, but there is a danger that the door could slam on one kitten while following another who is already inside. I also hated the idea of a very young kitten trapped in 100 degree weather for up to 8 hours, so I used the low tech, tried and true method of building a trap (a huge old dog crate), attaching a string to the door, and conditioning the kittens to come inside when I was sitting about 15 feet (20?) feet away. The plus side here is that once the kittens are trapped you know it, and can handle it right away. You also know what you’re trapping: I didn’t want mom yet until I had the kittens, nor a raccoon (possible), a rat (possible), or a weasel (fill in the blanks).
The downside is obvious: you have to sit outside forever waiting for the kittens to venture inside. (Try your hardest to avoid a record setting heat wave that means it is still 95 degrees at 9 o’clock at night.) I used chicken as a lure, first tossed it within 5 feet of the kittens and then withdrew, gradually moved it closer to the crate and eventually inside. I left food inside twice a day for 3 days before I tried to pull the door shut. I tried to make the timing predictable. Although I carefully tested pulling the door shut (note the comment on FB about someone who pulled the string but the door didn’t close well enough) it STILL didn’t work the first time I pulled it shut with 2 kittens inside. The string got hung up on a bungi cord and the kittens easily slipped out. That actually turned out to be a good thing: they weren’t that frightened and came right back in and this time the system worked. There also weren’t other kittens out who could see what happened; one of my criteria was to get all the kittens in the area into the crate before pulling the door shut. I didn’t want one kitten outside seeing what happened and avoiding the crate from then on.
On Wednesday night two kittens showed up and after teasing me (one in, one almost in… other in, one almost in….) both finally went into the crate and I pulled the line in like a fisherman with my heart pounding. Success! I covered the crate and carried it, kittens scrambling and yowling, into the house. The next morning, yesterday, I caught 2 more. No sign of the 5th, but I have high hopes he is still with him mom. I’ll start again this weekend trying to trap them.
TAMING: I don’t use that term lightly. Feral kittens are basically wild animals who have the potential of being afraid of people their entire lives. But if they come in early enough, and I am confident that these have, they can be socialized to people in relatively little time. Here’s what I’ve done, and some very helpful things I’ve learned along the way from people more expert than I in taming wild kittens:
WHERE SHOULD YOU PUT THEM? The answer is simple: In a small space. I put them in the downstairs bathroom, a pretty small room where they immediately took refuge behind the toilet. That’s fine. They are easily caught or fed there, and there’s no chance they’ll be able to run away. The last thing you want is to chase them and teach them that they were right to be afraid of you in the first place. If you don’t have a small room, use a crate.
TOGETHER OR ALONE? Until now the kittens have all been together, but it seemed to me that they’d socialize faster if a human was their only social companion. Kelly Sorensen, feral kitten socializer of Dane County Friends of Ferals extraordinaire, agreed. So Jim brought home another litter box, and after we took the photos below we moved the two ginger boys to an upstairs bathroom and keep Calico girl by herself downstairs. I might separate the boys too, but that does make time with each of them more complicated. It’s all a trade off of what’s best for them, how much time you have and the logistics of life.
FEEDING: Food should come from you and you alone. I came into the room about 5 times a day with food (okay, I’m fessing up, my productivity has taken a dive, no question). I entered trilling like a queen cat returning to her litter with food. FYI, it took me 4 years to learn how to trill–I’ll try to make a recording of it and put it on YouTube next week. I have no idea if it had any effect on the kittens, but it does serve to condition them to expect something good when you enter. Here’s a great tip I learned today from Kelly: Instead of putting the food down on the floor, with the idea of bringing it closer and closer to you (which I’ve done with some success), it goes much faster if you put the food at the end of a long spoon and let the kittens lick it off. I found I could get my hand within a foot of them with no hissing from Brave (aka Hissy-Boy, more on him later!) Don’t worry if they are too frightened to eat the first night, that is a common side effect of cortisol production and is expected. I wasn’t worried that the first 2 didn’t eat that night, but was glad to see them eat the next morning. Whenever I left I did not leave food in the room for them: Again: YOU = FOOD and are the sole source of it, don’t let them eat when you’re not at least in the room. If you are getting worried that they haven’t eaten, Kelly suggested putting the food on the end of the spoon and leaving it there, thus getting them used to eating from a spoon. In a day or two you can pick up the spoon and let them eat off of it while you hold it. Smart.
HANDLING: Here’s what I wasn’t sure about, given that my work with cats has almost all been with socialized, older companion animals who either don’t use the litter box or are aggressive to cats or people: How much should one force an interaction? Should you wait and lure them closer and let them come to you? That’s often your best bet with adult dogs and cats. But not in this case, says Kelly, don’t hesitate to reach in and pick them up. Picking them up by the scruff (if they are still young) is best, using the method that their mom uses and that results in a relaxed posture and no desperate scrambling to grab onto something with their nails. Be sure to use leather gloves at first, some kittens, including Brave, will bite and scratch before you can get a good grip. I like to swaddle them with a towel so that their 4 paws are wrapped in such a way you don’t have to worry about getting scratched. Then their little heads are sticking out and you can feed, pet and get them used to you. I loved that even yesterday, on day one, Calico raised her chin when I rubbed it, as if she liked it. Yesterday I found that some would readily swallow goat milk from a dropper, others were too nervous to do so. But hold them against you if you can, for up to a half hour or so, even carrying them around in a sling if you have one. The more they get used to being held and carried around the faster they will socialize. I’ll be spending lots of time catching up on my reading with a kitten in my lap. (Allergies? Did someone mention allergies? La La La, I can’t hear you!)
VEIL YOUR EYES: I almost forgot to add this very important point, one of my favorite aspects of feline communication. Cats avoid direct eye contact (much like unfamiliar dogs) and sometimes do “Look Aways.” But cats also simply shut their eyelids, slowly and purposefully, while continuing to look in the other’s direction. I have used that for years with adult cats: as soon as the make eye contact I slowly lower my eye lids. We think it’s a friendly way of saying “I mean you no harm,” something like extending your weapon hand to “shake” to prove you have no axe or knife in it! Be sure to do this whenever your kitten makes eye contact with you. Calico is looking at my face often now, and I make a big show of slowly closing my eyes. (It’s sort of fun!)
HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE? Ah, there’s no answer to that question, because the answer is in the details. What are their genetics? How inherently shy are they? How much time do you have to spend with them? I’ve heard everything from 3 days to 3 weeks. One thing you can predict: the hissiest, growliest one will be the first to tame and the quiet, shy one in the corner the last. It makes sense when Kelly explains what she thinks is going on: all the kittens are frightened, but the hisser is the one brave enough to act on his fears. “YOU! He says. “YOU ARE BEING WARNED! I HAVE WEAPONS!” Brave hissed so much yesterday that I started laughing at him. He’s much much better today, but I have to give him credit for being the one to step up to the plate and try to defend himself.
HERE’S WHO IS LEFT: I’m hoping Calico and her mom will become my barn cats, so that I still get to have a cat, just not in the house, and that the three boys find wonderful homes. Whether it is inside or out is a complex issue, one that is best considered in a blog focused on just that issue. Friends of Ferals has agreed to foster them because of my allergies (thank you Dan Johnson! What a guy….), but the kittens will be here until early next week. Anybody, uh… want a kitten? [By the way, they look MUCH bigger in these photos than they do in person! They weigh about 1.50 to 1.6 lbs right now, truly tiny.)
HERE’S ‘CALICO’ (Sorry, I’ve got dibs!)
AND HERE’S ‘NOT BRAVE’ Help, he deserves another name, yes? Any ideas? Better yet, homes?