Cats Training & Grooming

From Hiss to Kiss: Helping Feral Kittens Blossom

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Tara, the farm manager, discovered them on the edge of the herb farm’s property, under the porch of the shuttered farm store. After feeding the two hungry and scared kittens for a week, Tara was able to grab them. They hissed, scratched, and bit her, but she got them into a carrier and brought them to the animal shelter. The staff estimated the kittens were 7 weeks old, the upper limit of the primary kitten socialization period.

The day after they arrived at the shelter, I picked up Peony and Sunflower to foster them. Before I left the house, I sprayed a calming pheromone in my kitten foster room, which contained a wire condo with a shelf and hammock. I covered the condo with a light sheet, and inside it placed kibble and water, a litter box, toys, and a small box in which to hide. I sprayed a calming pheromone inside the car and played calming cat music on the way home. Once there, I released them in the condo.

Despite being scared and hissing, they never swatted or charged me when I placed moist food in the condo. I remained on a small bench about three feet from the condo and talked quietly to them while they ate so they would associate my presence with something pleasant–food!

During the next 2 days, I gradually drew back the sheet covering the condo and moved closer while they were eating. I gently introduced a wand toy through the bars of the condo. I blinked my eyes slowly, sending them kitty kisses. They started relaxing but didn’t sleep in my presence. When I said goodnight to them on the third night, I secured the condo’s bottom door in the open position.

The next morning, they were hiding under the ottoman and didn’t come out. I sat on the floor so as not to loom over them and lured them out with their wand toy. They scurried over my pants as I dragged the toy across my legs. Once they were used to playing with the toy while I sat on the floor, I graduated to sitting on the bench and finally to standing up.

After two more days, I sat the ottoman up on its end so they couldn’t hide under it; I draped a towel over it behind which they could still hide. Again, I used their wand toy to lure them out. While they were involved with the toy at the end of the wand, I also “petted” them with the wand to get them used to being touched. Distracting them with their toy, I managed to get in a pet here and there and gradually increased the pressure of my legs on their bodies as they rested between my outstretched legs.

I didn’t want the kittens to be scared or to feel as if they had no control. I didn’t want them to tolerate me; I wanted them to choose to be with me.

One day, something scared them, and they didn’t just run behind the towel curtain; they climbed up under the towel to the top of the ottoman. It was the perfect opportunity to pet them through the towel. They didn’t run or freeze, so I placed my hand under the towel and petted them directly for the first time.

That was the breakthrough I’d been waiting for and, thereafter, I was able to gradually pet their chins and cheeks and ultimately their bodies. I found it helpful to pet the less cautious Peony first and then Sunflower because I already had her sister’s scent on my hand.

They liked to eat their moist food on top of the condo, and I was able to continue to pet them there. Maybe it was less scary to see me only from the shoulders up. Pretty soon, they climbed to the top of the condo whenever I entered the room, and I was able to pick them up, touch their paws and ears, and open their mouths to prepare them for veterinary exams. Thereafter, they were running to greet me at the door to the room and even rolling over. 

I sat on the bench and dragged their toy over my lap. Peony, the hisser, was the first to relax in my lap. Sunflower was a bit standoffish, but finally came around. After two weeks they were purring and rubbing up against my head whenever they were on top of their condo.

I placed a dog gate across the kitten room door and covered it with a slippery shower curtain so the kittens couldn’t escape. I kept the door open when I was in the room, so they were able to hear household sounds: TV, radio, blender, doorbell. I also opened the screened window when I was in the room so they could hear street sounds: cars, people walking by, dogs barking.

I was supposed to weigh them every night per the shelter’s instructions, but I got the okay not to do that until I felt I had gained the kittens’ trust. Weighing 9-week-old kittens on a tiny kitchen scale can be tricky. What has worked well for me is placing a small box on the floor that they become familiar with and that they play in. It’s then a small move to place the box on the scale.

During the third week, I introduced the kittens to new people–adults and children–who played with them with their wand toy. I brought the kittens to an enclosed entryway where my pet cat doesn’t go. I fed them and played with them in that space. They were a little cautious at first, but I used their wand toy to lure them from under a bench. Soon they were exploring the room.

During their time with me, I placed a soft towel in the bottom of their carrier and left it in their room. They liked to rest there. A few days before their ride to the shelter, I put the top back on the carrier. It was a familiar place.

What a rewarding journey it was to see Peony and Sunflower blossom into loving kittens. I let them set the pace and learned valuable socialization techniques I can use on my next spicy litter.

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

Nancy Peterson worked as a registered veterinary technician, trainer of dogs for people with disabilities other than blindness, and was Community Cats Program Manager for The Humane Society of the United States. She retired in 2015 and currently serves on the boards of Neighborhood Cats and The National Kitten Coalition. Nancy volunteers as a foster and cat cuddler for her local animal shelter, Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). During COVID, she became an avid birder and is working to protect cats and birds by building bridges between cat and bird advocates.

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