Taming the Tiny Tigers
Kitten season approaches and feral mommas are giving birth. In order to give kittens their best chance at a long life they will need to be removed from mom and exposed to people as soon as they are able to eat on their own. I like to remove kittens at about the 4-5 week mark but as rescuers, we don’t usually have a choice of when kittens come to us. This discussion will focus on kittens between 6 and 9 weeks old when at an age we feel most are still tame-able but often, will have already developed a fear of humans and need to be worked with in order to become adoptable. Kittens this age may run and hide from people, hiss, lash out or they may simply cower at the back of their nest. There are no strict rules on ages and all animals are individuals so, these methods may or may not apply to older kittens. Not every kitten can overcome the fear of people and the rescuer should understand that failure to tame a kitten does not make that person a failure; saving a life is not defined by a single outcome.
First Things First
Feral kittens should be given limited space. A small bathroom or kennel is ideal but it must be large enough to accommodate the kittens, all their belongings and your body as well. Working closely with the kittens every day will bring the best results and chasing them through a large room constantly does not work. The kittens should have 1-2 hiding places like a carrier or cardboard box but should always be at arm’s reach. It is good to play soft music or, even better, talk radio or audio books so they get used to human voices.
For the first 24 hours after trapping I leave the kittens alone except to clean up after them and give food and water. The next day, the first thing I do is assessment. Are the kittens handle-able without gloves? If I can handle the kittens without being bitten I will usually keep a litter together and work with them in a group. Handle one kitten at a time: Hold the kitten (scruff if necessary) and pet gently while using a soft voice. Do not stare at the kitten or make eye contact. Do not allow the kitten to “scramble” (constantly struggle and attempt to get away from you). If they do this, use a small towel to make a kitten burrito. Wrap them firmly in the towel so that only their head is out and all limbs (and claws!) are covered by the towel. Give them each a short session (5-10 min each). End the session on your terms; do not allow the kitten to escape. As the kitten accepts this more, push the towel lower on their body until they are all the way out and hold them on your lap while petting.
Kittens that are older or more “wild” present more challenges. Some kittens will scream, bite and even soil themselves when you attempt to interact with them. Heavy gloves and towels are necessary for kittens at this level. Safety is very important and getting bitten puts yourself at risk as well as the kitten. It is best to separate kittens from their littermates completely at this stage. They should be put into separate kennels and should not be within sight of each other. Separate foster homes are even better so the work is divided between volunteers. It seems harsh but they will accept your company more quickly if they have no other outlet for companionship. Work with them one at a time using the gloves and wrapping them in a towel. It is best to have a partner help you the first time. Once you catch the kitten you will need to scruff them and hold steady while your partner wraps the towel and secures them so they cannot escape. They may scream and bite as you are doing this. Do not release your hold on them. Again, this is difficult for people who love animals but the time it takes to tame kittens like this can be cut in half using this method and staying persistent. After one or two sessions most kittens will stop the screaming and biting. It will still take time but after you get them over the initial terror it becomes easier to work with them.
Once the kittens relax in your presence I like to use bribery to gain their affection. I offer a small amount of human baby food (stage 2 turkey or chicken) on a spoon and let them lick it off. As they become used to this I offer the food on my finger and entice them to come closer and closer to me to get the food ending with them crawling into my lap. Pet them as they eat. As the kittens accept your handling more you can start playing with them using a fishing pole toy. I like to get in a few pets as they play. I alternate this with sessions of holding and once kittens start to purr I know that I am rounding the corner. Once they are at this level I will return the kitten to his littermates and work with the whole group. The ideal end result is a litter of kittens that are comfortable around people and seek out attention. Feral kitten taming is a lot of work and can be downright frightening but intensely rewarding. The first purr from a kitten that you were afraid to touch at first is an incredible moment and not to be missed.
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