When I first fed the kitten that showed up in my backyard, she retreated into the woods if I stood too close. Daily, I moved the food closer to my back door. Nervous, but drawn by the food, the little gray-and-white tabby approached as I spoke softly to her, calling her Baby.
I moved the food progressively closer and finally deeper inside the house. Finally, Baby was far enough inside that I could close the door behind her. Terrified, this feral kitten crashed into the walls in her desperate attempt to escape.
What is Feral?
The term feral describes a wild or savage creature. Feral cats live as wild animals, without owners or homes. Unfortunately, most feral cats have not been spayed or neutered, so they reproduce prolifically. To prevent the kittens from living the same tough lives as their parents, they must be tamed and adopted.
Ideally, remove feral kittens from the nest at 4 or 5 weeks of age, when they can be safely weaned. If you remove them sooner, they are less likely to survive. At around 6 weeks of age, they start romping and playing out of the nest, making it more difficult to capture them – it may just take more patience, as it did with my experience with Baby.
Carefully try to capture the mother as well, and have her spayed. This will help reduce the feral cat population.
Make sure both you and the kittens are safe and protected before and after you capture them.
You do not want to get bitten, says Sara Winikoff, DVM, a veterinarian in suburban New York who devotes half her practice to feral cats. A feral kitten could have rabies.
Until a veterinarian verifies the kittens health and you are confident that it will not bite you, always handle the kitten with a towel or heavy gloves.
The Feral Cat Coalition (FCC), a San Diego organization, recommends confining newly captured kittens in a cage large enough to hold a litterbox and food. If you don’t have a large-enough cage, confine the kittens in a spare room or bathroom. The point is to corral them in a limited space where they cannot escape or hide in a spot that you would have difficulty reaching.
If you have other cats in the home, protect them by preventing any contact with the feral kittens until they have been checked by a veterinarian. Always wash your hands after handling the kittens to avoid transferring disease to your other cats.
Initially, the kittens just need to grow accustomed to your presence and learn to trust you. They will notice that you bring food. Visit them often. Keep your body still and speak softly.
The FCC recommends starting to handle the kittens after two days.
1. Start with the least aggressive kitten.
2. Gently place a towel over it and pick it up in the towel.
3. If the kitten remains calm, place it on your lap and gently pet it on the head from behind. A variation is to use a soft pet brush, which imitates the mothers grooming tongue.
Do this with each kitten, then give them all a special treat, such as a dollop of meat-flavored baby food. Repeat as frequently as possible.
It is also extremely important to remove fleas immediately, because kittens become anemic from flea infestation and this increases their susceptibility to illness. Because flea-control products may not be safe for kittens under 6 weeks of age, use a flea comb. Drop any fleas you find into a jar of rubbing alcohol. Combing also helps the bonding process.
Food Equals Love
First, I leave food and water in the kittens cage or room so they can eat whenever they want. I visit often and speak gently. Then I remove the food for a few hours. When I bring it back, I provide a more delicious food than they received before, such as baby food.
I sit on the floor, so I’m less intimidating, several feet from the food and speak softly. The braver kittens often warily eat. I repeat this process, so they begin to equate me with tasty food. I also visit at other times speaking softly. I know I’ve made progress when I enter the room and they don’t immediately run and hide. Instead, their natural curiosity fastens on me.
A Little Closer
As the kittens become more comfortable, I introduce a toy on a string. As they play with the toy, I draw it closer to me, so they don’t even realize how close they’ve gotten to me.
I continue the process with the food, visits and toys, and when I think they’re ready, I lightly pet their heads while they eat. In time I work up to more extensive petting. Pretty soon the kittens are tame and in love with me because I provide food and positive experiences.
The entire process usually takes five days, but very shy kittens may take longer. Then they are ready for adoption.