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Taming Feral Kittens and Cats – Part 1

| November 3, 2010
Taming Feral Kittens and Cats

Research shows that the socialization stage in kittens is 3 - 9 weeks old, with them becoming progressively harder to tame with every day over about 8 weeks. While kittens up to the age of 12 weeks can be tamed, older kittens often retain a degree of fearfulness and a small percentage of kittens (approx 10%) will not tame at all. There is no magical age at which kittens become untameable.

Taming Feral Kittens

This information is drawn from numerous people with hundreds of hours experience. All of these suggestions have worked for someone. Since feral kittens differ in age, temperament and rate of progress, these suggestions can be adapted to individual needs. Readers with hands-on experience will have their own tricks. The guidelines can be adapted to socialising (or re-socialising) a traumatised or poorly socialised kitten or cat.


Feral cats are cats which have “gone wild” and those born and raised in the wild. “Semi-ferals” are those which tolerate some human contact. Ferals often form colonies wherever there is shelter and a food supply e.g. farms, airbases, rubbish tips etc. Urban ferals congregate near dustbins, markets or where animal lovers provide food. They may perform a useful function by hunting rodents attracted to edible refuse.

Feral colonies may act as reservoirs of disease such as FeLV/FIV which can be transmitted to pet cats which interact with ferals. There is also the fear of toxoplasmosis and (in some countries) rabies affecting humans. They may become unhealthy and unsightly through continued breeding, poor nutrition and fighting (among unneutered cats). The habits of unneutered cats, especially males, makes them unwelcome. CPL Branches may be asked to help control such colonies through trap-neuter-return schemes and often encounter feral kittens during trapping. Since kittens attract more attention and sympathy from people than do adult cats this is when CPL Branches are often contacted and, as a result, find themselves in possession of spitty, hissy kittens which need to be tamed and homed.


Research shows that the socialization stage in kittens is 3 – 9 weeks old, with them becoming progressively harder to tame with every day over about 8 weeks. While kittens up to the age of 12 weeks can be tamed, older kittens often retain a degree of fearfulness and a small percentage of kittens (approx 10%) will not tame at all. There is no magical age at which kittens become untameable. Cat workers must prioritise those kittens which stand a good chance of being homed as pets; this means concentrating on younger, more responsive kittens.

Kittens caught and fostered during the socialization stage may come to view humans as part and parcel of cat life – even if mum (who may be in foster care until her kittens are weaned) tries to teach them otherwise! Orphaned feral kittens and those removed from an over-protective mother before weaning must either be hand-reared or fostered. This is beyond the scope of this paper.

As well as the right environment, the taming process takes time, commitment and patience and there is already a vast surplus of unwanted pet cats. In a shelter situation it is recommended that ferals over the age of 5 months be neutered and returned to the colony otherwise they occupy space needed by more easily homeable kittens. This allows the shelter to concentrate on the younger kittens which stand a better chance of being placed as domestic pets. If you are an individual with the time, space and patience, it is possible to tame older kittens and young adults, but it is a more time consuming process with a higher failure rate.

Older kittens and young cats which ‘come round’ tend to bond with one person and should be found suitable permanent homes as soon as possible. Even then, the stress of rehoming may cause a completely tame ‘feral’ to temporarily revert until it bonds with the new owner. It is tempting to keep such “one-person” kittens. Before attempting to tame feral kittens, bear in mind that there will be some which will never tame however much love, effort and attention you lavish upon them.


Feral kittens are usually first noticed when they start romping away from the nest at 4 weeks old. The best time to catch them for taming is 5 – 8 weeks old when they are no longer dependent on their mother’s milk. Though cute, a frightened feral kitten will defend itself vigourously if cornered so a trap or stout gloves (e.g. welder’s gauntlets from DIY shops) are essential. Also make sure your Tetanus jabs are up to date. Experienced people liken handling an angry feral kitten to wrestling with a animated cactus.

If it is necessary to take unweaned kittens (e.g. abandoned/orphaned kittens), seek advice on hand-rearing or finding a tame foster-mother. Such early contact with humans makes taming easier, but hand-rearing is time-consuming and human-reared kittens may have problems socialising with other cats.

On average, taming takes 2 – 6 weeks depending on a kitten’s age and degree of wildness. Some come round within days, some take months and a few never come round at all. It is easiest to work with one kitten at a time as groups of kittens may be held back by the wildest one. If circumstances dictate taking on a whole litter, you may need to separate them and work on them individually or in pairs.

The first step is to establish trust; most of a feral tamer’s task is to get the kitten to trust humans. This takes several weeks with older kittens which are more set in their ways. The second part, socialisation with humans, begins in the tamer’s home and continues in the kitten’s new home. This takes upwards of 2 weeks in most feral kittens.

Two notes of caution:

– If the kittens are sickly, don’t let them mix with other cats, wash hands before and after handling them and wear an overall when handling them.

– Make sure the ferals’ room is escape proof; beware of the following: flue-pipes, chimneys, loose floorboards, windows which do not close properly, holes into wall cavities, suspended ceilings, doors and windows which cannot be secured.


Initially, keep the feral kitten(s) in a kitten-pen (Majesticage etc) in a room where they will see humans frequently. Some people prefer to have them loose in a small room but this may result in “indoor ferals”. Others only have them loose during petting-and-play sessions. Spend plenty of time with them and talk gently to them. Always move slowly and quietly so as not to frighten them – they will be jumpy at first. When you’re out of the room leave a radio or TV playing, preferably on a ‘talking’ channel, to accustom them to human voices being a normal part of cat life. A tape recording of your voice is even better.

For the first few days don’t try to handle them; let them recover from their fright at being in close proximity to people. Offer titbits so that they come to regard you, the food-offerer, as a surrogate parent. It has been suggested that bribes akin to their feral diet work best, e.g. cooked rabbit for rural ferals or cooked white fish for those used to fish and chip shop refuse, as familiar food helps hunger overcome fear. Whatever bribes you offer, it is vitally important that the main part of their diet is a balanced commercial cat/kitten food.

Before opening the cage to change litter, food or water etc, ensure the room is escape proof. When you reach in to the pen, don’t do so with outstretched fingers – curled fingers are less threatening. In feral kittens, caution overrides curiosity and they will defend themselves rather than investigate your fingers. As they become less frightened by your presence (and more curious), try leaning in through the cage door and tempting them to play with you by gently batting a ping pong ball or waggling a feather.

The kittens need plenty of contact with people – not just physical contact, but just the presence of people nearby. If people walk past or sit around chatting but apparently ignoring the kittens, the kittens learn that humans aren’t a threat to them. They also need to become accustomed to normal daily household sounds and activities if they are not to remain fearful of these in later life.

If you have the kittens loose in a room, spend time sitting on the floor with some food that you yourself can eat. Drop the odd morsel close to you or offer it in your fingers – if you remain still and talk gently, one or other of the kittens should pluck up the courage to snatch the titbit. As their confidence grows over several days, they will move closer in the hope of dropped titbits. Eventually they should overcome some of their nervousness and start climbing on you in case you eat all of the food without accidentally dropping any! You can now commence the stroking stage.


Start with the least aggressive kitten. Some tamers suggest placing a towel over it and if it stays calm, stroking it gently on the head from behind. Whether or not you use a towel, remember that if you approach from the front it may lash out in self-defence, but if it can’t see your hands it may assume it is being groomed by a littermate and start to enjoy this. Repeat this several times over a few days; talking calmly at the same time. Never stare at a kitten – this is threatening. If it panics, stop stroking and talk reassuringly. Be confident; if a kitten thinks you are scared it will start to resist your advances. It is said that when a feral kitten purrs while you stroke it, the battle is half-won.

Once it remains calm during stroking, you can work on picking it up. In the wild, once a kitten leaves its mother, the only thing likely to pick it up is a predator so it will either defend itself or freeze in fear. Grip it securely by the scruff, as its mother would, and place it on your lap. Hold it securely, stroking it and talking gently. Most will try to burrow their head under your arm, many will tremble, so you must be calm and reassuring.

If it starts to panic, put it “back home” (in its basket or the kitten-pen) and go back to the stroking stage when it calms down. Keep initial handling sessions brief before putting it “back home” (where it feels safe) and offering a tasty bribe. At first you won’t be able to cup one hand under its hindquarters as it will kick out. Once it accepts being picked up without panicking, you can start supporting its bottom or using two hands as you would pick up a tame kitten.

When you pick up or hold the kitten do so securely but comfortably. Don’t hold it too tight or squeeze it or it will associate handling with pain. Don’t hold it so loosely that it can be dropped as this will only make it more frightened. To begin with you might need to use gloves; some people prefer to exchange their heavy gauntlets for more flexible leather gloves which can be dispensed with once the kitten accepts handling.

If the kitten is unhandleable on your lap, try putting it in a top-opening wire cat carrier without any pad at the bottom. Place the cat carrier on your lap. When the kitten becomes settled in its ‘safety cage’ you can reach in and start stroking it or offering treats. Several sessions like this should accustom it to being on your lap and you can then dispense with the basket. If it falls asleep on your lap or wants a tummy rub – you’ve won!

Kittens also learn from observation and a friendly, healthy pet cat will act as a role model. If your pet purrs when stroked, the kittens may eventually come over to be stroked too. If the kittens are declared healthy you may decide to let them interact with your own people-oriented pet cats. Always be aware of the potential problem of cross-infection.

Sometimes over-cautious feral kittens must be TAUGHT how to play with things like ping-pong balls. Like all kittens they are full of energy so get them to interact with you through play – fishing-rod style toys are ideal. Also provide a scratching/climbing post; they will quickly work out what it’s for.

If you are using a kitten-pen, the kitten may have to be returned there after petting-and-play sessions. Once it starts enjoying stroking and playing, it will resent “going home”. Chasing it to catch it will make it fearful. It may follow a tossed toy or a food treat into the pen or onto your lap (so you can catch it). Some feral kittens panic the first time they are let out of the pen. If it becomes uncatchable, calm down, sit down and let it quieten down as well. Can it safely be left loose in the room? If you must resort to desperation methods such as tossing a towel over it or catching it in an upturned carrier, you risk undoing weeks of hard work. If you have the stamina to tire it out with energetic play it might return to its bed or your lap of its own accord!


Once the kitten doesn’t object to being stroked and handled, invite other people – family and friends – to handle it, otherwise it might become a one-person cat. If you have several feral kittens and one becomes tame enough to home, you should consider homing it so you can devote more time to the others. The most aggressive or wildest kitten will almost certainly take longest to tame and need more “intensive” treatment.

If you have a home lined up, involve the prospective owners in the later stages of the taming process so that they can bond with their chosen kitten. They might be provide a worn jumper to put in its bed so that the kitten becomes accustomed to their smell before it leaves you. If possible, give the new owners the kitten’s blanket and favourite toys so that it has something familiar and reassuring in its new home.

The new owners need to know that the kitten was once feral as they must reinforce the taming and bonding process. A home with other sociable cats, but no excitable young children is best. That way it can continue to learn how to interact with people through observation and copy-cat behaviour.

Rehoming is traumatic for any cat and a tamed feral may revert for a while (from several days to several weeks) before bonding with its new owners. At first it will hide so they will need to understand its background and go through similar steps, to a lesser degree, to gain its confidence.

It is tempting not tell people that a kitten was feral, for fear of losing a prospective home. This is a mistake unless the kitten was fostered at such a young age that its behaviour is indistinguishable from that of tame-born kittens. If the new owners don’t know what to expect, they might inadvertently undo all your hard work by expecting it to behave in the same way as an “ordinary” confident, kitten. You need to tell them what to expect of what is a “very special kitten” and the more time they put into bonding with it, the more rewarding they will find the relationship later on.

Even after bonding with a new owner, some tamed ferals (mainly those tamed as older kittens) remain shy. Others constantly pester their owners for affection, physical contact and company. Some bond with only one or two people whom they view as “family”, remaining cautious of strangers. Many owners of tamed ferals report that their cat is “a real character” and I endorse this opinion.

Sometimes the kitten may fail to settle in a new home. This can happen with any kitten, but an ex-feral will find the experience even more traumatic. In such cases you must be prepared to take the kitten back, assess how much it has reverted and repeat parts of the taming process as necessary. Just occasionally the opposite happens and the traumatic experience literally shocks the kitten into becoming more tame (this has been recorded in adult ferals as well). Though I have witnessed this, I certainly don’t advise that anyone deliberately terrifies a feral kitten (which is frightened enough as it is) in the hope that it will become tame overnight – it constitutes unnecessary cruelty.


A small proportion of kittens remain untameable even if caught while young. This is a due to genetics – the wiliest ferals are best equipped to survive and they pass on this wiliness and fear of man to their offspring. Kittens over 12 weeks old are harder to tame and the results may not be satisfactory – they may bond to one person only, be nervous, hard-to-handle and practically impossible to home as pets. It is possible to have them neutered at this age, avoiding the need to keep them in captivity and under stress.

Early neutering of untameable young ferals allows them to be returned to their colony; if kept in captivity for a few months they might have problems reintegrating themselves into their colony. Keeping them penned for months also ties up a pen which could be used for a succession of homeable pet cats and can cause great distress to what is basically a wild animal.

Some feral tamers insist that all cats can be tamed if given enough time and effort. Personally I believe it cruel to persevere if the cat or kitten shows no sign of change over a period of months. Research into feline behaviour has found that some cats and kittens (even those born into domestic environments to domestic mothers) simply lack the genetic make-up to adapt to a household setting. Their genetic make-up means they are fully wild and it is not a failure on your part.

Sometimes there isn’t enough (wo)manpower to allow older kittens to be tamed; or there may be so many friendly pet kittens around that excessively nervous feral kittens, with their special needs, really don’t stand a chance of being homed as pets. Once again, it is kinder to neuter them and return them to site as early as practicably possible.


Each feral kitten is different due to temperament and the amount of exposure it has previous had to humans. A kittens will progress at its own pace as it begins to feel safe and secure and develops trust in the person taming it. Kittens which tame quickly should be placed in suitable homes to allow you to give more time to slower kittens. Don’t rush things or the kitten may later revert to feral ways. Reinforce the taming/socialisation with plenty of titbits and, later on, plenty of petting and play sessions. Don’t be rushed into rehoming the kitten – it needs an understanding environment where the socialisation process can continue.

Even experienced feral-tamers may feel discouraged on encountering a kitten which cannot be tamed or may become over-attached to a tamed kitten and keep it despite their original intentions. An untameable kitten shouldn’t be viewed as a failure – it is genetically predisposed to life as a wild animal – and there is a danger of becoming overrun with ex-ferals which have established trusting relationships with you. By maintaining a sensible outlook, most feral tamers report their work to be challenging, satisfying and very worthwhile.

Copyright & Credit:
Copyright 2009, Sarah Hartwell – MESSYBEAST.COM

Photo copyright and courtesy: Justyna Furmanczyk – stock.xchng

Category: Feline Health and Care, Feline Resources, Feral Cats

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