#21 Taming Older Female Kittens

We've got a theme going with this and entries #19-20.
Female Feral Kittens that don't start socialization until 3-4 months old. Read all three if you want better insight into the difference between males and females past the relatively easy 8 week old stage. Here's an exchange with an adopter who has lost ground with the kitten in the picture. She was handleable at the time of adoption but needed continued work. She has regressed to being completely aloof and "untouchable." In addition she's developed some renegade habits which are not pleasing the adopter. Here's the email asking for advice:

hey mike,
it's vanessa that adopted dolly. still having no luck with her. she is so skittish and she climbs on everything. don't know if you have any advice or if you'd be able to take her back. she gets on top of everything and is constantly knocking over my plants and getting into the cupboards. not sure what to do.
thanks, vanessa

Dear Vanessa,
I'm so sad and surprised to hear things still aren't working out. I do have suggestions if you are willing to continue trying and I also have some questions. I'm not sure which of these suggestions will work with your schedule and what you've already tried. Let me know and we can narrow it down.

1. Does she like to sit in a high up spot? Maybe a tall cat tree or shelf somewhere else with a bed would be preferred if you create an alternative. Is the other cat chasing her, or she's chasing bugs like our cats do and go flying across the apartment? Explain more if I'm way off the mark. We have some mild "zap" pads that train cats not to go places. After a few times, they just stay off forever to avoid the risk of getting the zap in that location. It's a mild electric current. We have a large one you could lay across the kitchen counter and that should cure her of going up on the counter which I'm assuming is the half-way point to the cupboards.

2. Dirt and foliage are often an irresistible smell for feral cats and they often rub up against pots out of pleasure and they can knock them over. Is there any way to secure them to stand up to a happy cats weight? Can you provide a small container of cat grass from the pet store? Does she respond to that? A donut of aluminium foil around the plant can deter cats from stepping in pots or digging in plants. Is it small pots getting knocked off or big pots she's digging in?

3. Is she getting along with your other cat at all? Some cat's cat's will prefer cat company to bonding with humans and need to be given an incentive to befriend humans. I'm wondering if your schedule is such that you don't spend much time at home. If you are away several nights per week and only stop in to feed some days, that might be why she's aloof. She may be thinking that you'll be gone soon if she just waits a little while. I'm trying to figure out why she hasn't settled into the family in such a long time.

4. First rule to winning a cat's devotion is to never leave food out when you are gone. I don't want your other cat to be deprived, but I know in the beginning you were going to make her come to you if she wanted to eat, and not let her eat off on her own, just avoiding you completely. Did that never work or were you too busy to stick to it. I'd suggested petting her while she eats for the first month or she doesn't eat. It might take some working back up to that at this point, but it is an easy process if you have the patience and time.

5. If your other cat is a good eater and eats quickly, take up the food when you leave if she hasn't come over and eaten near you. She'll be happy and anxious to see you every time you come home to feed. Shy cats only overcome fears by their survival incentive. They must feel the need to win you over; first by self-interest and only after time for pleasure. Food and interactive play are the only tools we have that they are willing to give in for. We can talk about how to gradually get back to this program if you think it applies to the situation. It can just be with the bowl at your feet while you watch tv, or on the bed. She'll be coming over in no time, but only if it's her only option.

6. Another possibility: Since I know she enjoyed being petted and held when she was being socialized, you could try putting her back in a pen for a month and petting her while she eats. We have nice cat pens to loan if you want to try it. They are comfortable with several shelves to move around.
Let me know if any of this helps or brings up more questions.
All the best, Mike


#20 Why do older female kittens seem harder to tame than the males??

Question: I'm no expert but I've tamed a few litters of kittens and find that past 8 weeks the females are progressively harder to tame than the males. What do you think? Rosina

Answer: Yes, I agree. I think Mother Nature gets the credit for this phenomenon. Up until 8 weeks, kittens are pretty much defenseless and it is mom's responsibility to make sure they are warm, eat and don't fall prey to predators. Kittens under 8 weeks are programmed by Mother Nature to be fixated on mom, stay near her and do whatever she says. Once they hit 8 weeks, kittens are on a super fast-track to independence. That means, hunting and feeding themselves and getting ready to reproduce. Male kittens seem to get more of a limbo period from Mother Nature since their role in reproduction is pretty minimal, and their child-care role is non-existent. Taming a male kitten even up to 6 months can sometimes be done without much fanfare with consistent hard work.

Here's the info that for me makes ALL the difference between socializing female kittens between 2 months and 4 months: Female kittens can become pregnant as early as 4 months old. Think about it. In the time between two months of age and four months, the female kitten must learn a mind-bending number things. She must become self sufficient hunting and feeding herself. She must be prepared to have a family in the street as a single-parent and all that entails. Finding a safe spot to deliver her kittens where she can protect them and defend them from predators is a very advance level of development. With kittens, she must make a hundred decisions every day how to keep them alive and feed herself plus produce milk for them.

Male kittens are on a much slower track of development and have pretty much of a free ride during this same period of time as long as they learn to hunt for themselves and stay out of the way of the dominant males in the colony.

The key to understanding the challenges of socializing older female kittens comes back to something I've discussed frequently in this blog, the FIGHT or FLIGHT instinct. The "Fight or Flight" instinct goes from pretty much zero at 8 weeks to warp drive in a matter of a few weeks in female kittens. Imagine how much mental development it takes to go from complete dependence on mom to being ready to be a mom yourself in 2 months time.

Female kittens this age really need the "option" to stay away from the socializer and approach of their own choice. Give them space and use their hunger to get them to muster up the courage to come up to you to eat. Cornering them or forcing them in any way to be held or handled will have diminishing returns. You may be able to get away with it with young kittens and older male kittens but the older females are programmed to panic in that situation.
A mom cat who has kittens back in the nest is not going to take any unnecessary chances while out getting a meal. Her priority is making sure those kittens survive. Even though the kitten is only 3-4 months old, Mother Nature has already infused her with the instinct to not take ANY unnecessary chances. Why let those humans touch and pet you when it isn't a matter of life or death. Hunger is pretty much the only thing you have to work with at this age with female kittens. The thing in your favor is that female kittens of this age are very intelligent and once they realize you only mean them well, it's almost instant that they hold strong with the progress you make and move steadily forward. This is all the more reason not to give them any reason to think they can't trust you by forced handling. Of course there are exceptions and individual scenarios but you are right as far as I have observed. Older female kittens are a much bigger challenge than their mushy brothers.

Stella d'Oro, the mom cat in the picture was pregnant at 4 months and gave birth 2 months later in 10F degree weather in a underground drain pipe. Her 3 kittens survived thanks to her resourcefulness until Urban Cat League could help her out. Stella d'Oro is a lovely cat needing an adoption. She loves to be petted and brushed but doesn't like to be picked up. See her on the adoption page of urbancatleague.org

#19 Are Tortie kittens harder to tame?

Question: I tamed an older litter of feral kittens about 4 months old. The male kittens all tamed down with lots of steady work and application but one of the 2 females in the litter took nearly three times the amount of time and energy before she was adoptable. Even so, she still doesn't like to cuddle or be picked up much. The Tuxedo female in the litter was tough too, but nothing like what it took to tame the tortie. What's been your experience? Taming a Tough Tortie.

Answer: I avoid generalities since they are often misleading and create a preconceived prejudice by the socializer going into the project. BUT, since you mentioned that she was a TORTIE (Tortoise-shell), I must let you know that there is a widely held opinion among Vet Techs, rescuers and anyone who's met a large number of felines, that Torties (and to a lesser degree Calicos) tend to be stand-offish cats and aren't usually cuddly lap cats. Some go as far as to only adopt them out as singles for fear of a territorial instinct which often makes for fighting with other house partner cats. When the Tortie in question is feral it seems to be kicked up even a notch higher. That said, Torties are much loved by their humans and very playful and fun-loving cats who often live in perfect harmony with other cats. It would appear that genetically they are infused to a higher degree than other cats with that "fight or flight" instinct and don't like to take chances, not even with family members they know and trust. Getting picked up or falling asleep in a human's lap is a very vulnerable situation to put yourself in. Torties just don't seem to think it's a smart thing to if it can be avoided. That said, there are millions of Torties and Calicos out there that are rolling belly up right now as I write this, enjoying a full body rub-down and can cuddle with the best of them. RUBY in these pictures lives with me. She provides endless entertainment and in her way is very in tune with humans. Every couple weeks she comes for her fix of petting and attention which lasts about 3 minutes and then she's good. She will curl up and sleep on the bed every night for a week and then we don't see her for a couple months. She's her own girl and very independent. RUBY lives happily with many cats and no fights have ever occured. As you can see she even naps with her Calico pal though we took the picture because it was so unexpected and rare. RUBY was returned from an adoption because the adopters found her too independent and not bonded with them. We love her independent streak and are very attached to her. Make of this what you will but if you have doubts about an adopter, you may want to carefully select who gets the tri-color girls.

Read the following blog for more info about socializing female kittens in the 3-6 month age range.

An interesting foot-note is that Torties and Calicos are all female except for one in 100,000 cats being male. The genetic explanation is that only the female chromosome X can carry color. Male cats only have one female chromosome so they can only carry one color in addition to the color White which is by definition the "lack of color." Female cats have two female X chromosomes so they can carry both black and orange, or any combination of two cat colors along with white. Therefore, only a female cat can be Calico or Tortoise-shell colored. The rare male cat that is bi-colored probably has three chromosomes being XXY, allowing him to be both male and carry color on two different female chromosomes.
If you find this as interesting as I do, or if I've thoroughly confused you, there's lots more info here: