Cats Fears & Anxieties Life at Home New Pets Shelters & Fostering

Fostering the Fearful Kitten

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The photo on social media shows a box of young kittens. The text says, “Kittens abandoned. Fosters needed.” You look up the rescue group and find they are local to you. Fingers poised over the keyboard, you ask yourself, should I foster?

Having fostered kittens for a number of years, I’ve faced this scenario more times than I can count. More often than not, I have two, three, and sometimes even five kittens in foster along with my patient three resident cats (and even more patient two dogs).

Fostering kittens is tremendously rewarding, especially during the Christmas holidays. Orphaned or homeless kittens, especially fearful kittens, don’t need all the normal trappings of Christmas, they need time, attention, care, and patience. Saving these tiny lives, watching them progress, and seeing them adopted into new homes is wonderful, especially when they are fearful kittens who have learned to trust.

The Basics Of Fostering

I foster kittens through a rescue group, and I recommend this to people new to fostering. The group will teach you what the kittens need, how to feed them, help them eliminate, and other basics of care. Most groups also provide basic supplies the kittens will need, including a bed, fleece blankets, food, bowls, bottles, and litter.

My job as a foster is to raise the kittens until they are old enough to be adopted to their new homes. Raising kittens includes feeding, cleaning, playing with, and socializing them. Keeping an eye on the kittens’ health and making sure veterinary care is provided when needed is also vital.

Fostering Fearful Kittens

Most kittens are great fun to foster, but kittens who are not handled when young, who are born to feral mothers, or who have been taken from their mothers too early can be and usually are fearful.

They can be a challenge because a kitten who is afraid may not eat, drink, or play. Without help, these kittens can fail to thrive. I look on these kittens as the ones who need my help the most.

A Place Of Her Own

The fearful kitten (or litter of kittens) will need her own place while she adjusts to your household. A large dog crate works wonderfully as it gives the kitten room to move around while keeping both her bed and litter box close. A blanket over half of the crate will help her feel safe.

Ideally, she should be able to hear your household while at the same time being protected from the hustle and bustle of household activities. During the holidays when guests and extended family may be visiting, do not give them access to the anxious kitten; their attention will most certainly frighten her even more.

Protect her from other pets in your household, too, even if they are friendly. Until she’s known to be healthy and is vaccinated, don’t allow any interactions with the cats in your home.

Resist Cuddling Right Now

Although most people want to hold the frightened kitten, cuddling her, she really doesn’t need that right now. This is tough for me. I want to hold that kitten and tell her that her life is no longer going to be frightening; that she’s going to be well loved. Unfortunately, too much handling right now will frighten her even more.

Instead, handle the kitten only enough to feed her, help her eliminate, keep her clean, and ensure she’s healthy. If, while handling her, she panics, gently cup her in one hand against your chest. Be still until she calms, and then finish what you need to do and put her back in her home.

You Bring Food

Most kittens who end up in foster homes have been hungry. Although in an ideal world kittens shouldn’t ever go hungry, you can use her past experience to help win her over. Using a small spoon, offer the kitten a dab of chicken or turkey baby food (the kind without onions). Don’t force the kitten to eat it, simply offer the food, holding the spoon still as close to her as you can without her dashing away. When the kitten licks it, keep your reactions to yourself; no cheering. After a few licks, offer additional food in a shallow saucer. Hungry kittens need to eat every two to three hours so you’ll get many chances to repeat this.

Once the kitten is eating and doesn’t flinch from you as you offer food, then you can gradually increase touching, petting, and gentle holding. Let the kitten tell you how much she is able to take, though. Be patient.

With some kittens I’ve been able to hold them for a few seconds within three or four days. A few truly frightened kittens have taken longer; one took two weeks. Unfortunately, he was sick and I needed to hold him to care for him and give him medication. I know that slowed his progress.

Play Is The Final Key

Play is what wins over most kittens, even fearful ones. When the kitten accepts your touch, even if still a bit cautiously, introduce some toys. As you reach into her home, wiggle a long feather, twitching it here and there. Let her pat at it and grab it. Next time, introduce a tiny ball or another toy with a bell inside and poke it so it makes noise.

When the kitten is actively playing, let her come out of her home. In a safe place, sit on the floor to play with her. Dangle a couple of feathers on a string and move it around. Let her chase it, attack it, and catch it. Don’t be surprised if she climbs on your lap when she’s tired. That’s how to win her heart, and that’s the best holiday gift of all.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT

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