Socializing Scared Kittens, Part 1

The most important action a caretaker can take to help kittens find a permanent home is to actually socialize them.–Dr. Sophia Yin.

Andy and I have been fostering kittens for The Cat House for three years. In that time, the kittens have generally come to us prior to seven weeks of age, or during their prime socialization period. This past fall, however, we took on the challenge of fostering kittens who were rescued at around eight weeks of age. Moreover, their mom was feral, and so they too are unsocialized.

This article is the first in a series about Adventure, Poetry, and Mystery—our most challenging foster kitten experience to date. We rolled out the welcome mat for the trio in late November. As always, we prepared our kitten room by setting out and filling food and water dishes. We also kitten-proofed the room by installing outlet protectors and placing pillows on the floor to protect them from any falls. However, because of their being old enough to climb, we didn’t block access to my bookcases with our tall pet playpens. Then we naively left them alone to settle into their new home, thinking that the next day we’d check on them and then we’d begin socializing them as normal.

How wrong we were! According to Feral Cat Focus, “Kittens that do not have any contact with humans after they are born will be feral. They will be frightened of people and demonstrate all of the signs of fear and anxiety that an adult cat would, like spitting, hissing, and running from human contact.” This is exactly the situation Andy and I faced. Our new foster kittens were so deep in hiding among my bookcases, it took us a long time to find them. When we finally did, if we approached them, they hissed and fled. Obviously, socializing the kittens under these conditions was going to be impossible.

Andy and I came up with a new plan. Earlier in the year, we had bought a mesh pet playpen for the purpose of providing our foster kittens with a contained resting area after their spay/neuter procedure. We decided to repurpose it as a containment for our unsocialized kittens. Even though we had bought the biggest playpen we could find, it was a challenge to fit all of the kittens resources into it: food and water dishes, a litter box, a scratching post, a pet bed, and an arched scratcher. To help acclimate them to our scent, Andy and I also each placed a clothing item in the playpen. Then we rounded the kittens up, placed them in the playpen, and began the socialization process anew.

Feral Cat Focus advises that the decision to bring feral kittens into your home should be taken seriously. According to FCF, one must “commit to caring for them one-on-one for at least a couple of hours each day, for a period of a few weeks to a month or longer.” If one is not willing to invest the time, FCF cautions that foster pet parents will realize after weeks or months that they cannot touch the cats—”they have feral cats in their home that cannot be adopted.” Andy and I don’t want to see our three foster kittens returned to a feral colony. We want them to be adopted into a loving home. And so, as part of restarting the kittens’ socialization, Andy and I researched how others have worked with fearful kittens. Then we began to implement the suggested steps.

The first step, according to Best Friends Animal Society, is to develop an initial positive interaction with the cat. For most cats, the best way to do this is with food, because all cats must eat. Sure enough, it didn’t take long for the kittens to realize that we were their source for food. When we first placed the kittens into their playpen, one of them would peek its head up at us but the other two would dive under their bed whenever we opened the door to the kitten room. Now, a month later, they’ve stopped hiding and will now wait for us at the playpen door. They’ll even scratch at the playpen door as I scoop up food. They’ve learned that food comes from us, and so we are a positive in their lives.

However, it would take more than bringing food to the kittens to tame them. Andy and I brought meals at consistent times. In the first couple of weeks, only one of us went at a time, so we didn’t overwhelm them.  We spent time with them. We talked quietly and walked slowly when we were with them. We never stared and we rarely pet them. Sometimes I played background classical music. Each time that we brought food to the kittens, we encouraged interaction by laying outside the playpen and offering them yummy smelling treats from our hands. Treats have included squeezable puree, Friskies Treasures, and sardines. When the most scared kitten showed reluctance to accept food from our hands, we bridged the gap by using a spoon taped to the end of a dowel.

ASPCA Pro says that another way to develop a positive association with scared cats is through play. Indeed, ASPCA Pro contends that play is a more powerful reinforcer than food. The rationale is that while food is a primary reinforcer, animals will at times eat when they’re stressed. In contrast, play is incompatible with fear, and so animals will only play if they’re relaxed. When we first placed toys in the room with the kittens, they simply stared at them from afar. As they became more comfortable in our home, we began to hear them playing when we weren’t in the kitten room. In the month that has passed since we started to foster them, they’ve started to perk up whenever we bring out toys. They’ll now also play in our presence and with us one at a time. Again, they’ve learned that toys come from us and so we are a positive in their lives.

Inspired by the ASPCA Pro, Andy and I began to initiate play with a laser light whenever we entered the kitten room. The latter allows fearful cats to engage in play (a positive experience) with people at a safe distance. Other suggestions given by the ASPCA Pro for playing with scared cats are kibble rolled along the ground like a bug and shoe strings run along the ground like a snake. Even if we’re not directly playing with them, they only get toys when people are in the room, and so that helps the kittens associate play with people. Until kittens are socialized, wand toys may prove too scary for them. Our kittens have now graduated to simple wand toys and also to turbo tracks.

Andy and I rolled out the welcome mat for Adventure, Poetry, and Mystery about four weeks ago. Although at times we’ve been discouraged, we’ve made huge strides in acclimating the kittens to people. However, there’s still a lot more work to do. None of the kittens are comfortable yet with being petted, let alone with being picked up and held. I’ll share how those steps unfold in my next article.

Need help with cat behavior? I offer cat behavior consultations, training in manners and agility, and support for basic care and enrichment. Email me at or message me at Allison Helps Cats or on Facebook at Allison Helps Cats.

This information is available as a checklist. Click here to download.

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