Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I just came across your site when looking for an answer, and I hope you can give me one! We think that someone dumped a pregnant cat at our house, or she found us. She had her babies over 6 weeks ago and they are eating dry kibble and wet food but she is still nursing them. We are planning on getting her fixed and then releasing her back to our yard. We are out in the country and away from busy highways, but there are dogs around. I have an inside cat (2 years) and my sister’s cat (3 years and also inside) visits us when she comes home, which is pretty frequently. The stray mom had five kittens and we are trying to figure out what is best for them. We are planning on getting them all fixed, socializing them (we have been catching them and bringing them inside for several hours at a time but they are still pretty wild), and then taking care of them as outside cats (or inside/outside if they prefer) because we can’t bare to separate them from their mom and each other. Are we taming them in the right manner by bringing them inside and holding them for several hours and then letting them back outside? Is it better to leave them as a family or find people who would want to adopt them? Thanks for your help!
Thomas: First of all, Niki, thank you so much for caring about this mama cat and her kittens. It’s unfortunate that people sometimes dump their cats out in the country when they no longer want them, or if they become an inconvenience by doing something as natural as having kittens!
Bella: We hope that’s not what happened to your mama cat and that she’s somehow genuinely feral and happened to find you.
Tara: It certainly is possible to socialize feral kittens, and it’s been done successfully by many rescue groups and individual fosterers. We’ve got some tips to help you, too.
Thomas: First of all, the best time to start socializing feral kittens is when they’re less than eight weeks old, so it sounds like you’re starting this project at the best possible time.
Bella: The New York City Feral Cat Initiative has three videos about socializing feral kittens that could be a huge resource for doing your own socialization.
Tara: The most important part of socializing revolves around food. If you want the kittens to get tame and get used to you, feed them delicious food every time they come indoors. That way they’ll get the idea that humans bring food, so humans are good!
Thomas: So, in addition to loving and petting and playing with them, feed them too!
Bella: Mama cat will probably appreciate a break, since the kittens are reaching an age where they have sharp little teeth and nursing is, well, a whole lot less fun than it was when they were newborn babies.
Tara: The Urban Cat League also suggest interactive play as a way to socialize feral kittens. Engage them in play with “thing on a string” toys. If they’re brave enough that they feel confident moving around a room instead of hugging the walls or darting under furniture, interactive play will help to teach the kittens that humans are fun, too.
Thomas: Alley Cat Allies also has a great five-page guide on how to socialize feral kittens, along with some tips on determining kittens’ age and some precautions to take.
Bella: Mama cat is probably too wild for socialization at this point, unless she was once a house cat and she’s brave enough to remember that people can be kind. It will take a lot longer to get her to trust you than it will to get the kittens to trust you.
Tara: We’re glad you’re going to trap the mama cat and get her spayed, then return her back to your yard, and that you’re also planning to get the kittens fixed and vaccinated as well. We’d recommend that you contact shelters or rescue organizations in your area to see if they can help you. Trap-neuter-return (TNR) groups will have humane traps you can use to capture mama cat and get her taken care of. They may also be able to find funds to cover the cost of having the kittens fixed and vaccinated, too.
Thomas: Another thing a TNR group might be able to help you do is give you a better sense of the kittens’ ages and be able to provide you with even better tips for socializing the kittens. After all, they’ll be able to see the kittens’ behavior for themselves.
Bella: If you’re in the United States or Canada, the Humane Society of the United States has a directory of organizations that can help you find help for feral kittens and cats.
Tara: If you do want to try taming the mama cat, we wrote a post a couple of years ago with some tips for helping a scared stray or “semi-feral” cat.
Thomas: It is quite possible to get the kittens socialized enough to be adopted into new families, and it’s worth undertaking that effort, particularly if you have the support of a shelter or TNR group.
Bella: If you do want to keep the family together on your land, that’s fine. And it’s also totally fine if you feel like the little family isn’t socialized enough to be indoor cats.
Tara: Another thing to think about is how your resident cat and your sister’s cat are handling the introduction of the kittens. Are they noticing the smells of the kittens and either not caring or behaving in a friendly way? That’s probably the best sign.
Thomas: We would suggest not sharing the kittens with your cat until they’ve been vaccinated and had any fleas taken care of. (Bathing is safest for very young kittens because most topical flea medications are made for kittens eight weeks of age or older.) The first video from the NYC Feral Cat Initiative has some guidelines about bathing kittens.
Bella: But after the kittens have a clean bill of health, other domesticated cats can be really helpful in the socialization process. When young and impressionable kittens see adult cats being completely at ease with people, it can make a huge difference!
Tara: We generally recommend that domesticated cats stay indoors only because of the dangers that lurk outdoors–including the dogs you mentioned, as well as cars and other cats who want to fight…and so on.
Thomas: However, we are American kitties, and we know that people in other countries have very different attitudes about whether or not to let cats outdoors. We figure that since you already have a cat of your own–and another feline visitor on a regular basis–you’ve got a very good idea about how safe or dangerous your area is.
Bella: So, we hope this helps, even a little. Although Mama has never socialized feral cats before, she does know good resources when she sees them! Please let us know how things go!
Tara: How about you other readers? Have you socialized feral kittens? What did you do and how did it go?