#4 Should I give a feral kitten a box to hide in?

Hi! I am in the process of taming an approx. 9 week old feral kitten and I have been told that it is good to provide the kitten with a box so that it has some place that it can retreat to and feel safe. This seems logical. In part three of your videos on taming feral kittens, you talk about using a bathroom where the kittens can not hide from you so that you are not pulling them out from anywhere to handle them. This also seems logical. Is there a hard and fast rule on this? I am one week into socializing her, and she definitely spends a lot of time out of sight-- but not always. She will hang out on top of the box sometimes. Honestly, she might be scooting into the box as I come in- I'm not sure. About 5 times a day I will remove her from the cage (and if necessary, gently bring her out of the box) and hold her on my lap for a lengthy petting session. She will hiss and growl as I reach for her, but she has really learned to enjoy the petting and will even purr! Would you advise me to remove her box, or would you say that there are certain cases with certain kittens where a box can provide needed security? Thank you for any advice. I have no doubts that she is going to be a GREAT kitten and a long term member of my home. Krista Dear Krista: Since you plan to keep the kitten, and not rush to find an adoption, you have the luxury of taking your time with a more organic path to gain trust and confidence. The box is fine since you can easily get close to the cat in the box and not be reaching in under a bed or behind a couch at arms length without being able to even see the kitten. If it were me, I would avoid ever reaching in an pulling her out. I'd space out the feeding sessions apart to the point where she is hungry enough to come out on her own to eat when you come into the room. Giving her the choice to stay in the box or come out on her own to meet you will build the permanent trust and confidence to become a relaxed member of the household. Even when they start to purr and/or eat after being pulled out of hiding, they were denied the opportunity to "choose" to come out to get something they want (food). Letting her choose builds the confidence to not run when someone enters the room and stay still to be picked up when you are towering over her out in the household. If she won't come out of the box when you enter and put down the food, wait a little bit. You can give her a taste off your finger to entice her, but don't give her a free ride, or let her hold you hostage at that stage. Try a toy on a string to lure her out or anything else that she likes but if she won't come out after awhile, pick up ALL the food and go away for an hour. Keep coming back until she is hungry enough to come out on her own to eat. Don't stare at her but just put the food down by your side and sit facing in profile, not staring at her every move. Don't bend down staring into the box like a predator saying sweet things to her. All she will see is a potential predator waiting to pounce if she dares to come out. When she does come out, ignore her completely the first couple times and don't even look at her until she really gets eating. Then you can talk to her casually, and work up to touching, petting, picking up, etc. It may seem counter intuitive since you already have her purring and happy when held but you need to back up to overcome the instinct to not come out of hiding when a potential predator is looming outside the den. Hunger is the only thing to short circuit this instinct and then she will assimilate it and no longer consider you a potential threat. Cats are both predator and prey so they have a very strong "fight or flight" instinct. It needs to be disassembled in a step by step and methodical way for a permanent effect. Don't leave food behind when you aren't in the room until this behavior is overcome and she will soon be running out to meet you when you arrive at mealtimes. At 9 weeks, they should be fed at least 3 times per day but she will be fine waiting 12 hours a couple of days between meals if it take that to get her to come out to eat. A day or two hungry won't have any lasting harm but it is important for you to overcome this hurdle while she is still young and adaptable. She'll be fine not eating for a day or two if it takes that long. Once she's overcome the fear to come out, it will be permanent progress and she'll come out right away the next time. I don't often get to give advice to someone who has the luxury of time because they plan to keep the cat they are socializing. Sometimes people are confused that we think all kittens should get "Tough-Love" treatment. Nothing could be farther from the truth if you have the time for a more organic road to gaining their trust. As a further guide to people in your situation, we have on the socialization page of our website a diary written by one of our volunteers Katharine. She adopted two feral kittens and just let them socialize very slowly with no "fast-track" techniques or any formal socialization work at all. In time they became "normal" lap cats all on their own. This is the preferred method but with so many kittens to get adopted we've had to invent all the antics you saw in our video. Petfinder.com makes the box pictured at the top of the blog. It can be converted to a carrier so a cat can go to an adoption with its own bed to make the transition smoother. They sell them in bulk to shelters or as few as 5 at a time. All the best, Mike


#3 Before you turn them loose in a new home

Check out this great set up for getting cats out into the household for socialization. THis would work well for undersocialized cats or former ferals moving into a new home. DISCLAIMER: The cats pictured are in the last stages of socialization and can be managed without risk to life and limb. A hard-core feral cat could tear his way out of this set up in a New York minute. For the starting stages of socialization of cats/kittens, a more secure confinement is required for the safety of all.

Here's the email note that came with the pictures:

This is the 'tent method' for socialization. It works very well. You put the pup tent where the people hang out (family room, TV room, kitchen, etc.), so the cats can see everything going on. It really helps socialize/tame them quickly. There's enough room for a person to sit halfway in the tent and interact with them, also. This is where she'll keep Julia, until she feels it's time for Julia to come out and roam freely in her place. The cats seem very comfortable and happy in them, plus there's a cat tree to play, nap on, toys to play with. Very cute.


Thanks for the pictures and info Dorothy.

Making sure adoptions work out requires supervision and follow-up. If the cat is adjusting well, don't be a pest, but make sure the cat didn't run under the bed the first day never to be seen again. Many times the adopter will shrug off your concerns with a remark like "We've had cats all our lives, and never had any of those problems." Those same people may be calling to return the cat if you haven't prepared them for what to expect and don't help them to get through the first few days. For this reason, I like to let cats have the run of the house for a few days before going up for adoption or being moved to an adoption cage for viewing. This way their first experience having the free run of a home won't be with the new adopter. Sometimes a cat that is comfortable being picked up from a pen and held will be less confident when turned loose in a home. They may have the impulse to hide under a bed and just stay there forgetting why they are even hiding. A set up like the one in the picture would be a great intro to a new home for an undersocialized cat that is ready to be adopted but not ready to be turned loose in a big apartment or house. A bathroom or bedroom can work well for this transitional period too, but a pen or tent can put them out in the busy part of the house to see their new family in action. Once they are turned loose in the house, they may hide for a couple days but if the cat is confined at the start and the adopter can hand-feed the cat and "bond" with it first, the cat will usually only hide for a short time. If the cat hasn't bonded at all with the adopter before being turned loose, the adjustment period will take much longer and the adopter may loose patience and interest in the cat. It is hard to predict which adopters will have the compassion to work it through. Insisting on some confinement in a bathroom or pen at first is the best assurance that the adopter will bond with the cat and then have the patience to get through any problems later on.

Sometimes one is so elated that the cat is getting adopted that we forget to make sure that it will work out. After all the hard work it takes getting them socialized and ready for adoption, don't screw it up in the end-game. I'm usually so happy to be getting part of my life back once the kittens leave the house, I have to remind myself to do the follow-up calls and house visits BEFORE the call comes from the adopters with problems. Usually it is enough to check in and reassure the adopter that everything will be ok if they stick to the plan we laid out before the adoption. I hope this advice will help you to more successful feral adoptions. All the best, Mike


#2 This new litter of kittens is nothing like the last one!

My husband and I socialized a litter of kittens last year near his office and spayed the mom. They were very feral in an aggressive way but with your advice of using food as an incentive to gain their trust they tamed down pretty quickly. Now we have some kittens that let us pick them up on the first day, hold them, pet them and yet it has become clear that they only allow this because they are TERRIFIED!! We've got them in a secure place now, but at first, if they got loose, they'd run under the couch and hide there for days. We thought this was going to be a repeat of the first time but these kittens are like a different species of animal. What can we do?? Help! Beatrice and Lou in Adelaide, Australia

PS we took them to the vet to make sure they weren't sick. The vet agreed that they are healthy, just scared.

Dear Beatrice and Lou:
Glad to hear that my advice help the first time around. I hope this time will be as helpful.

You've got a vivid example of what I try to get across to everyone who confronts socialization; no two cats are alike. Like people, every cat has a unique history which has shaped its personality. I'm guessing that this new litter are the offspring of a Cat that had very bad experiences with humans. Mom probably stiffened and her pulse raced every time a human came near. Even while blind and nursing, the kittens were learning to fear humans from mom. The first litter you had probably didn't have any invested fear of humans, they were just spitting and swatting as a normal reaction to being confined and not sure what was happening. Once they realized you were offering food, play, warm bed, etc. they formed a positive opinion of you and trust built with each hand-feeding and each good experience.

With the new litter, no matter what you do, they are convinced that it is just a matter of time before mom's greatest fears will be realized. Mom's energy when humans were around told them they were in mortal danger. That lesson is ingrained and you are going to have to replace that learned fear with trust one day at a time. It sounds like they are so afraid they are "playing dead" for all practical purposes. Fortunately you realized that they were not truly tame but just "shut down."

You'll need to appease their innate fear of you before you can use the basic approach to socialization outlined on our website:

Let me digress a bit first, to make you aware of the behaviors to avoid which will be perceived by the kittens as predatory. This may be the insight you'll need to adapt your approach to this litter's special fears.

Cat's are both Prey AND Predator. Therefore, their sense of "Fight or Flight" is more finely tuned than in most animals. They must be on guard in a flash to either escape being eaten, or to seize the opportunity to snatch their own next meal. They must decide in a heartbeat whether to fight or flee as a means of survival in their natural outdoor habitat. "Curiosity Killed the Cat," is an misleading adage. It's not idle curiosity, but a vital need to be in tune with everything going on around them. They have a near photographic memory for every detail of their "turf," as anyone who's watched their cat investigate a new item on the coffee table, or a shopping bag that wasn't there 5 minutes before.

One more digression and I'll get to the task of giving you some concrete suggestions you can apply to socializing this new batch of kittens.
Cats can not relax when they are unsure of a potential danger in their midst. We've got to get these kittens in a relaxed mode before you can make any progress with them. The spark for this lesson came to me from my friend Betsy who doesn't enjoy cats AT ALL. She has severe allergies and when she comes to the house it is only briefly and she sits very still and stares straight front ignoring the cats completely. She thinks they will stay away from her with no sweet talk or calling to them. Betsy didn't realize that IGNORING a cat is a Gold-engraved invitation to be climbed all over and investigated thoroughly. I knew this, but the coin really dropped for me when our shiest cat, Reggie approached a stranger (Betsy) for the first time ever. Reggie was usually afraid of his own shadow but with Besty, he could cautiously approach and explore one of these two-legged things without being stared at and gushed over. Thanks for the lesson Reggie and Betsy!!

So...., all of that leads me to these suggestions for a different approach to socializing this new litter of kittens:

1. Don't focus your eyes on these kittens when you enter the room or when you are working with them. You may glance fleetingly but don't ever face off squarely and stare at them or they'll be sure you're getting ready to make a meal of them.
To further bring this point into focus, imagine what a predator does. It stares directly at its prey and walks very slowly toward the prey before the chase and kill. When a human stares directly at a frightened feral cat/kitten and walks toward it very slowly saying in a high pitched voice, "hi sweetie, I'm not going to hurt you, I'm your friend," what is the cat's impression? Remembering that cats are vulnerable prey in the wild, it's not hard to imagine why this approach doesn't relax a feral cat.

2. Towering over them will probably give them the willies, so try to get down to the floor in the least threatening position asap when you come in. When the time comes to lift them up, start very close to the floor as shown in Part 2 of the video.

3. Until you see some progress, always sit 3/4 facing away from the kittens when you work with them. Act indifferently and uninterested in them. Put the food down near you but don't watch them eat. Pretend to ignore them completely. Bring a book or something else to do and just hang-out in the space with them. I often bring a sleeping bag into my bathroom where I work and just take a nap on the floor allowing them to explore me. This gives them the non-threatening "space" they need to observe and study you. They need to come to the conclusion that you are not a threat and eventually that you are a friend. You can't be a part of them crossing this hurdle other than just "being there." I call it the "benign neglect" approach to gaining their confidence.

The more time you can spend with them in a non-threatening situation, the faster you can wipe clean their traumatized association with humans. You didn't mention their age, but I'm hoping the kittens are only a couple months old at most. The older the kittens, the more time mom has been reinforcing her view of humans and the harder (more time) it will take to replace that with a positive image. Putting them in a pen out in your living space will give them added chances to observe you while you are doing things that don't confront them. We use this below pen on rolling wheels and they can be moved around the house as convenient for your routine.
If the link doesn't work, it's the ProSelect Standard Foldable Cat Cage found on several websites. I like it because its doors open easily and there are several levels for them to exercise and separate food from litter and beds.

Use your judgement as to when you can start transitioning back to the more direct interaction with the kittens and the socialization techniques you used with the first litter. Each kitten will have its own rate of progress. Try to use the more confident kittens to demonstrate to the more frightened ones that you can be trusted. Here's where a cat "Nanny" may come to your rescue. Kittens crave the company of older cats for safety, training, free baths, etc. Older Male cats seem to be the most amenable to baby-sitting litters of kittens. If you have healthy kittens and a healthy adult cat that is "into it," this may be your chance to let the "Nanny" get them distracted from you and they'll just learn to accept you by default. Our blind cat Ralphy has helped me to socialize countless litters of kittens that wouldn't let me near but loved Ralphy so much they forgot I existed. That's Raphy i the picture up top. I'll try to find the picture of the kittens nursing on him while he naps.

I hope some of these ideas will help you have equal success with this second litter. Write back with progress and I'll try to give any ideas I can think of. Above all, share any ideas of your own that led to a breakthrough for all of us to learn this very "fluid" science of feral kitten socialization. All the best, Mike


#1 Welcome to the Feral Cat Taming Blog

This Blog is a place for people confronting feral cat socialization to get some support and compare what they are going through with the experiences of people that have gone before them. Entries are past emails to Urban Cat League asking for advice.
Our basic approach to socializing feral cats to humans is outlined on the socialization page of our website, www.urbancatleague.org
There you'll find an instructional video link and a "how-to" print-out of our technique. Good luck!!