#12 Kittens have no hair on tails and eartips?

We just rescued some feral kittens and their mom after a recent blizzard which fortunately trapped them inside one of our outdoor shelters. The kittens all have the exact same missing hair on the tips of their ears and last half-inch of their tails. What could this be? There is a black sludge on the skin which I've scraped off. Underneath the skin seems healthy and the spots do not fluoresce under a black-light so I'm assuming it isn't Ringworm, right? Have you seen this before?
Hairless Ferals in Minnesota

Dear Hairless,
First off, congratulation on your resourcefulness of getting the cats while they were in the shelter, and getting mom too! You are correct to be on the look-out for Ringworm but what you are describing sounds like frost-bite from my experience. The tips of the ears and tail get the most exposure to the cold due to minimal blood flow to those areas. The black sludge is probably dead skin since you say it looks healthy underneath. It sounds like they are on the road to recovery but by all means see a vet if the skin stops looking pink and healthy. Hopefully the hair will grow back and they should be ok. I'll bet mom and kittens are all happy to be inside and away from the Minnesota winter temps. All the best, Mike

#11 Why are they peeing in their bedding and not using the litter box?

Help! The feral kittens I'm taming don't seem to know what the litter box is for. They pee in the nice beds I've provided and sleeping in the unused box. Have you seen this before? Sopping in Seattle
Dear Seattle,
Yes, I have seen this before. I'm guessing you are using one of the "designer" litters that make our lives easier, but can be confusing for cats that have recently come in from the cold. Feral kittens only know dirt in the great outdoors as their litter box. When they are brought indoors, they need some help with the concept of using a litter box. Unfortunately, dirt is NOTHING LIKE pine pellets, sweat wheat, absorbent crystal pellets, recycled newspaper pellets, ground corn cob, etc., etc., .
The best thing to start them out with is the old-fashioned non-clumping clay litter. Once they are using it, gradually you can transition to the other types if you have one you prefer. I've never seen a litter of feral kittens that didn't use the clay litter as soon as it was offered to them. Toss a hand-ful of dirt from the garden on top of the clay litter if they still need convincing. This problem, like most we encounter with cats can be solved if we can get outside of our human frame of reference and imagine the world through the eyes of the cat. Easier said than done, right?
On the same subject with regard to older cats too, sometimes they will suddenly start to pee on a bed or couch for no apparent reason. Aside from the annoyance, this is actually a sign of affection. Cats that are alone a lot or unhappy with the kind of litter they are being offered will seek a place that smells like the person they miss or are fond of. Whereas in most cases cats will use the offending litter to defecate, they find couch, bedding or towels more suitable to urinate. I'm assuming they want to cover and will use anything to do that but with peeing since it disappears in cloth there is no need to cover. In one difficult case I took a small litter pan and put a hand towel inside as a last resort. The cat in question was very happy to pee on the towel and I just used a series of old thread bare towels until he just as mysteriously returned to the litter box and that was that. I never completely understood why he didn't use the litterbox for the 4 months it took. He stopped peeing on the couch and the bed and was faithful to the hand towel once I offered that option. There is an excellent brand of clay litter called "CAT ATTRACT" that is very effective to make cats happy with the litter box.
All of the variables need to be considered to solve why a cat does or doesn't do something. For example, declawed cats often have an aversion to walking on litter since it is either painful or unstable for them to walk on. Declawing removed the equivalent of what would be our fingertips at the first knuckle and this often makes cats look elsewhere than the litterbox to do their business.
All the best, Mike


#10 The outdoor ferals are getting more friendly but swatting me when I put down the food

The outdoor cats are far more trusting of me, they stay near me when I feed them, but also now hiss and sometimes even swat at me when I appear and place the food! I'm OK with that and a finger snap backs them off, but what does that behavior mean? Thanks, Arty

Dear Arty,
This is very common with ferals on the path to trusting humans. It's just posturing. My take on this is that they feel frustrated that they need to defer to you to get the food. Instinct is telling them to keep the upper-hand with you and not get too friendly. Meanwhile experience is telling them that it's ok to start letting down their guard based on demonstrated non-threatening behavior on your part. If it helps to understand this from our point of view, some researchers say that humans work out conflicting fear issues through our dreams. We evaluate and prioritize dangers and weed out things that we needn't be afraid of for our immediate safety through reactions to them in the safety of our dream world while sleeping. For example, "taking candy from strangers" is a very important fear to have as a child. As we grow older it's not vital to our immediate survival so we discard that from our list of fears. I have no idea how cats' brains process and change their fears as they gradually transition from fear to trust. I have found that if you let it happen organically, it will be permanent from my experience with feral cats. This is why I don't like to force socialization.

I wouldn't snap your finger or scold them if they swat you since that will feed the instinct which is telling them they are crazy to trust this two-legged animal and continue this very dangerous ongoing relationship with you. Just dodge the claws and hold your ground without reacting or looking directly at them. I'd put down the food and sit there by the dish for awhile to encourage them to dare to come closer without their fear kicking in. Maybe one day eating calmly with you sitting right there. You may find yourself getting a leg rub or petting them eventually if you take it slow with no agenda or expectations. Don't engage them directly and try to just "be there" without acting like you care whether they like you. This allows them to relax and explore you and gradually let down their guard day by day. They are dealing with an enormous inner struggle which we can't begin to understand. By you not not participating in it, you allow them to work it out on their own without being distracted by baby talk and eye contact, which they perceive as threatening behavior. I'll bet by next summer they'll be following you around the yard and hanging out on the back porch having beers with you.

Good luck with it! Best, Mike.

PS -Remember that I'm not a trained animal behaviourist. My ideas are completely intuitive and only based on my hands-on experiences. Until we find out a way to talk to animals, it's all pure conjecture on my part.


#9 Our feral mom escaped outside. She jumped on my lap and rubbed her head against me and started to purr. Back inside she was feral again

I am a rescue volunteer Huntington,WV. My grandmother currently fosters cats in her home. Two of them are mother and son, that were dropped off at our farm a few years ago and were left in a dog crate for a few weeks with little to no interaction. The male and his mother have never gotten use to people. The male, who's about a year and a half, will sit in her living room and observe you, with his head cocked to the left. He doesn't move, but when he thinks your going his way, he's gone. His mother on the other hand, is way worse. She hides, and only comes out for food. If your not in the room, she's laying around on the couch or wherever, but as soon as she hears or sees you she takes off. But the strange thing is, a few months ago she got loose outside and was gone for about 2 days. A neighbor called and said there was a cat and described her and sure enough it was Anne. Anne was looking at me and meowing, and even jumped on my lap and rubbed her head against me and started to purr. So we took her back over to the house. The minute I let her out of my arms, she ran off behind the couch. I tried to get her, thinking she had a change of heart, but scratched my hand and had to go get a few stitches. I was wondering if there was still a chance to get them to trust people fro the first or possible second time in their life, or is to late and just leave them alone. Any advice would be a tremendous amount of help.

Sorry for such a long email, and many thanks,

Dear Justin,

Thanks for writing with this fantastic insight into the sliding-scale of feral behavior. When she had no other hope for help, Anne knew she could trust you to help her. On the other hand when she is safely indoors and she can take care of herself, she prefers to keep humans at a distance. Former ferals are ingrained with a very smart instinct we would all do well to apply more often: "Don't take any chances that you don't have to." She's probably reasoned that since the food is put down every day without fail, the house is warm and safe and everything is fine just the way it is, why risk getting any closer to the humans than necessary. Outdoors, she had no where else to turn and you were her only chance of survival, but now that she's safely back indoors, all bets are off. She's obviously a smart cat which is usually the case with the hard-core ferals. It's their intelligence that stands in the way of socialization to humans. Less intelligent cats are much easier to tame.

She's shown that she can definitely become tame, but you have to provide the incentive to make the necessary trust permanent. The same is probably true of her son.

It may be as simple as not leaving food down for her and her son to eat freely without interaction with you. This is difficult with other cats in the house who don't have behavior problems and like to eat when they want. You could try putting them in a separate room where you can control the food but being alone all the time in a room isn't great for socialization either. However, since they hide when you are near being alone in a room may be the short term solution.

Only put food down when a human is right nearby and take it up when you leave. This can be tried from across the room at first but eventually you want them closer and closer until they are right next to you being petted and eating from a dish in your lap. It could take weeks to accomplish but if you stop the free ride, they will decide to become friendly to you out of self-interest and you won't have to do anything except give them the incentive. She's proven that when she needs you she can be nice. Make her be nice if she wants to eat and she'll make very quick progress. Take it slow but once you see that she understands, hold your ground and let her make the choice to make friends with the guy who has the food. Over time, it will be come permanent. The outdoor rescue was too stressful to be permanent but it was a great indicator of what she is capable. Ferocious dogs often display this tame behaviour briefly when they are in danger, only to become ferocious again the next day when they are safe again.

Go over the material in our video and print out and see if this is something you could work up to with the two of them.
Read Blog #4 about not staring directly at the cats, and also #5 with some more info about controlling the food.
Sincerely, Mike Phillips, Urban Cat League


#8 Is Spay/Neuter of feral kittens at 8 weeks really safe???

Pediatric Spay/Neuter has been done safely for 20 years now but there are still many veterinarian practices that will refuse to do it. They mean well, but they don't seem to appreciate how vital this is to an effective reduction of unwanted animals. For those of us in the trenches of TNR and/or animal rescue, the importance of adopting out already-neutered animals is a no-brainer. It's the only sure-fire way to prevent unwanted animals in the future. That said, we wouldn't do early spay/neuter on kittens if we weren't convinced that is as safe as waiting until say 6 months like they did in the "olden days." We are not putting the kittens at risk just to meet a mandate to stop kitten over-population. It is perfectly safe when done properly by an experienced veterinarian.
At places like the ASPCA mobile spay/neuter clinics where they spay and neuter thousands of kittens every year, I assure you the staff is always much less worried about kittens than adult cats on Spay Day. Kittens can eat the morning of the surgery since their metabolism is so fast. In fact they SHOULD eat a small meal 4 hours before to prevent hypo-glycemia. If you were ever to get to watch surgery on a kitten, you'll see that the blood flow to the reproductive organs in minimal so there is much less risk of bleeding than in mature animals.
Kittens wake up very quickly after the surgery and don't have the long sluggish recovery of older cats. Kittens can and should be fed right away after the surgery. Older cats must be fasted several hours and sometimes won't eat for a couple days due to recovery pain and discomfort. All in all, S/N surgery is quite simply easier on kittens than on older cats.
There are a couple of unfounded fears and false arguments going around about early S/N that are baseless.
1. I heard one uninformed person say that as adults the kittens will have underdeveloped urinary tracts and genital organs. The vets who have seen hundreds of these kittens later as adults say this is untrue.
2. Another myth is that the kittens will not grow to full adult size. This is actually not only un-true but the exact opposite is the case. The body's signal to tell the bones to stop growing is cued from a hormone excretion at puberty. Kittens who have been neutered before puberty actually grow very slightly larger than they would have normally. In cats, this isn't as noticeable as it is with dogs. Dog Breeders will often use this knowledge and timing to their advantage if they want a dog to meet specific Breed Standards. Neutering the dog early will cause the dog to grow larger, so the timing of S/N is important to meet specific category size standards to compete at the Dog Shows.
In the next blog, I'll talk about the importance of timing neutering when socializing kittens. Best, Mike


#7 Tom Cat Nanny strikes again!

Update from Regina:
Good news! One more kitten turned friendly this morning. She was snuggling with my tom cat Chi so I started petting him and she joined in. Two down and two to go.
Thanks for the support!

Dear Regina,
This is great news.
Using a friendly cat to work your way in is one of the best ways to break through with some really tough kittens. Try to stage that with the other two, too. Congratulations! Read more about how I work with our resident Cat Manny named Ralphy at the bottom of Blog #2. All the best, Mike


#6 Do they make cat tranquilizers for handling ferals? Answer: Yes, but try these ideas first.

I got an email asking if they make cat tranquilizers to get a cat into a carrier. Below are some alternative approaches not involving drugs, but first the info requested about sedation.

Some vets will prescribe a dose of a sedative like Acepromazine to make cats drowsy for easier handling. Most come in pill form that you can crush into a small amount of tasty food or stuff into a "pill pocket" to be gobbled up. In my experience, vets will only do this for a cat that is already a patient. I'll say right off the bat that I personally don't like to use sedatives, but some people do so here's the info.

Sedatives are usually used for traveling to alleviate anxiety on long road trips or airplane flights. Most begin to take effect after about 30 minutes. To get a fractious cat into a carrier the sedative does slow a cat down and make it less coordinated. Sedatives that a vet can send home aren't that strong, so the cat will still try to struggle out of your grasp. The cat could jump off a height and get hurt if you don't plan out your maneuver carefully to a confined area to minimize the jumping around. For people who have trouble handling cats safely, this doesn't make things THAT much easier. You still need to be quick and precise getting a good scruff.

The vet will want the weight of the cat in order to prescribe the right dose for the cat. This is the "Catch 22." If you could get the cat to sit still on a scale, you wouldn't need a tranquilizer. Young cats tend to gain 1 lb per month for the first 6 month as a general rule. 2 Months:2lbs., 3 Months:3lbs., etc.

For aggressive feral cats living indoors, I suggest setting a trap and taking them to the cat in the trap.

Here are a couple things I use for shy semi-feral cats that aren't aggressive. Handling gloves always come in handy to avoid scratches when a frightened cat scrambles to get away.

1. I prefer the path of least resistance with semi-ferals that are calm house cats, but still panic when you go to pick them up to put in a carrier. I train my semi-feral cats to not be afraid to go into a carrier by feeding them daily in a large carrier and/or tossing their favorite treats into a large carrier every day as part of their routine. In time they don't even look over their shoulder to see if you are going to close the door on them. I only close the door a couple times per year, so they quickly go back to not being afraid of the carrier in between vet visits.

2. Describing this next technique in words is tough, but another system that works well for me is to put an open carrier in the bathroom and close all the doors to all the adjoining rooms. I calmly walk toward the cat without scaring it but getting it to move away from me until it has no exit but to go into the bathroom. I've had good results with the cat retreating into the bathroom, and I close the door on it there. (A) Once in the bathroom, the cat often hides in the carrier when you carefully squeeze in to join the cat without letting it escape. (B) If the cat doesn't run to hide in the carrier right away, it usually hides behind the toilet. My bathroom is conveniently laid out so the tub is right next to the toilet with the sink cabinet on the other side. I put the carrier on one side of the toilet with a bath mat over the top covering the escape up to the tub. With a small pillow or towel, I come around the other side by the sink and the cat has no exit but to go into the carrier. I slowly hold the pillow or towel over the opening of the carrier as I carefully close the door using the pillow to fill the escape gap. A bread board can be slid in front of the pillow to keep the cat is as you slowly slide out the board while closing and latching the door. See the picture at the top of the blog for a better idea how this works. If you have to modify this idea, just try to think like a cat and create the path of least resistance for the cat. The cat will go into the place it thinks is the safest bet in the given situation. Make the carrier the best choice for the cat to hide with the path you create.

In other blog entries, I've discussed using a cattery or pen as a transitional space to keep cats coming back into a confined space until they are completely socialized to being picked up. It really helps to have them comfortable eating in a confined space when you need to get your hands on them occaisionally.

Best, Mike


#5 The 3 girls still run if I pass their way, I don't quite know how to proceed

HI Mike,
Glad to hear from you. I think the blog is great. As far as my situation, I don't quite know how to proceed. The kittens are now six months old. All four have the run of the house and seem quite comfortable in a home environment and love my house cats. However only one, Cye the first I brought in, has decided he likes me. Last week he became friendly and now loves to be petted and snuggled. The three girls still run if I pass their way and though they will play with me and seem interested in what I am doing will not allow me to touch them. Given the coming winter I won't turn them out but they are no way near adoptable. Though Cye is now adoptable, I'm wondering if keeping him around will be a good example for the others. Also, since they are attached to each other, I would like to adopt them two by two. As I have four cats of my own, eight is too much. Any suggestions as to how I can turn them around?

Dear Regina,

Read through the notes again about socialization. You need to give them an incentive to seek you out and not you be chasing after them. Usually the first cat you trap is the friendliest and tames most quickly. He's also a boy, not to be sexist but feral females seem to be harder to socialize past 8 weeks than males. The girls are toughening up to become single parents in short order. The boys have less going on and seem to stay juvenile longer which helps with socialization. Read the tips again and see which things you can use to get those girls rubbing up to you.

I imagine that all you need to do is control the food more strictly. If you just put food down and go away, they have absolutely no incentive to socialize to you. I feed stubborn older kittens out of a cattery even when they are running loose in the house so when they are in the pen eating I can close the door if I want to get my hands on them without chasing after them. Chasing them does more harm than good. Without doing anything else, if you don't leave any food out for them you can work wonders in a very short time. Sit with them while they eat and take it all up if you have to leave the apartment. Trust me, you'll have their full attention when you get back home. Try focusing on one at a time to get a break-through or you may get overwhelmed trying to accomplish too much all at once. Keep me posted if I can help.

Best, Mike