#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