How to Socialize Shy Kittens

One of the most important things you can do for foster kittens is make sure they get the best start in life possible. That means working hard to ensure they are friendly, comfortable with people and, as much as possible, don’t have any behavior issues.  Sometimes this can be tricky, at a certain point in their lives kittens develop a desire to chew on fingers and toes, as well as to play with said digits. While it might be tempting to let them chew on you, you must remember that they will one day grow into adult cats. It is a lot less fun when an adult cat is chewing on your hands with adult teeth. As a foster parent one of the largest responsibilities you have is to create as “perfect” a kitten as possible. The last thing anyone wants is for the kitten to be returned because of behavior issues or things that are no longer cute when the kitten becomes a cat.

Perhaps the most important, and trickiest part, is making sure the kittens are properly socialized to people. Please note that socializing cats takes a long time, especially feral kittens and very shy or feral adult cats. Before  you undertake any socialization process please make sure you have the proper tools and are equipped to handle the cats in your care. Working with a feral cat indoors should never be done alone.  Seek help from a local animal welfare organization trained  to work with feral cats. A trapped, scared feral cat (or kitten) can be unpredictable. Unpredictable cats lash out, and could harm you, themselves or other cats near by. If you are working with very shy or feral adult cats, I suggest you read this article from Best Friends Animal Society.

If you read around the internet you will hear of many ways of socializing kittens. Some people say that simply holding a shy kitten, forcing it to be held and receive pets, is the best way of socializing them. This works to a certain age, but for most cats more is needed. Handling a shy kitten only teaches them to accept being handled, it does not teach them to feel safe approaching you. Even if she starts purring while you are holding her, this is not a sign the kitten is socialized. This only teaches her to accept being handled. This is a good thing if you have a feral kitten or cat who needs to be handled, say for medicine or cleaning etc.

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Ben forgot he was nervous and plopped himself right in my lap to play.

If you want a truly socialized kitten or cat she needs to feel comfortable approaching you. That’s where play therapy comes in. The essence of play therapy is to get the kittens so engaged in playing with an interactive toy, they don’t notice they are approaching you. I wrote about play therapy several years ago when I was working with my first batch of foster kittens. Morgan was a feral kitten who turned into a sweet, snuggly love bug. I started with getting her used to being handled due to her need for medication, then through the miracle of play therapy turned her into a kitten who loved belly rubs and snuggles.

The kittens I am currently fostering are by no means feral. There were, however, three shy kittens who had no desire to approach me. They preferred to hide under the dresser whenever  I came in the room.  With a little work and love they are turning out to be the greatest kittens ever! The socialization process works the same for slightly shy kittens as it does for feral kittens, it is just less labor intensive and happens a little more quickly.

In addition to play therapy I used food as a socialization tool. Even before the kittens were completely comfortable with me I would sit with them while they ate. I would put food down and back away far enough to not be a threat, yet still close enough that my presence was felt. This does two things, one it helps the kittens associate  you with food, which is a great thing. If they know you bring food there is an immediate reward link in their brain. Who doesn’t love someone who brings them food? Once they feel comfortable enough eating around you you can move a little closer to them, eventually even touching them while they eat, giving you another positive connection in their minds.

The other important factor in socializing kittens and cats is hiding spots. Remove all hiding spots before bringing a feral or shy cat in to socialize. Block off access to any little nook and cranny a cat might find to hide in. Even if it looks too small, block it off.  You don’t want your feral kittens hiding in the farthest corner under the bed where you cannot possibly reach her. Or, worse yet, under the washing machine as happened to me. You do want to make sure the kittens feel safe when they first arrive in their new living space. You do want to give your scared kitty someplace to feel save in when she first comes to your home.For my current litter of foster kittens I allowed them to hide under a dresser in a small room upon arriving. I felt they were socialized enough that I would be able to pull them out from under the dresser. I also knew, from previous experience, just how easy it is to get kittens out from this particular space.

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Kittens relaxing in a dog crate

My first kittens, who were feral, were set up in dog crates.  I had a blanket or towel at the back of the cage, food, water and litter in the front of the cage. I covered the cages with sheets so the cats could feel safe and secure while adjusting to their cages. Because they were feral each cat was kept in a separate cage. I separated them because kittens respond to the behavior and responses of the cats around them. So if one felt scared it would be easy for the others to feed off that fear. Besides, do you really want to stick your hand into a cage full of scared kittens huddled in a ball of fur armed with claws and teeth? I certainly didn’t. While they were in separate cages they were able to see each other, so they could keep the bond and feel a little more secure. Once I was sure they were comfortable with the cages and could be handled I started letting them out to explore the room and play with me. It is important not to give them too large a space at once so they don’t get overwhelmed and cower.

Socializing kittens and cats can be work intensive. It takes lots of patience and lots of dedication. It is completely worthwhile. Watching shy kittens come around to the realization that people are good is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. That first time you get to pet a shy kitten, the first time he approaches of his own will and starts purring for you, it is one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had.

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11 thoughts on “How to Socialize Shy Kittens

  1. Bad Mama Genny says:

    Had a nice, long response written and then my laptop shut off. Grr! But anyway, thanks for this piece! We’re using food and play socialization–still can’t get mine to approach of their own free will, or not to run away when I walk up to them, but here’s hoping time and diligence fixes that.

    Bad Mama Genny

  2. Amy J. says:

    I sure hope this works !! I mean I’ve seen it on My Cat From Hell, so I’m sure it will.

    And I just rescued a (2 or 3 months) old kitten in my backyard. It took me 4 days to catch him, I had this cage that traps in animal in set up for 4 days and today (Sunday Oct 20th) the kitten got trapped.

    The kitten knows I put food in the cage and I had forgotten to put food in it last night and I guess the kitten went to go see if there was food and I came home from church and went to go check on my bunny and I started meowing to see if I could hear the kitten and I did and I meowed again and my brother looked around and said “it’s in the cage !!” And I was like “what ?! Are you serious !” And there was a small fluffy grey kitten with white paws in the cage staring at me. So and so I walked over to the cage and tried to grab the kitten but he started hissing at me so I took him inside my home and started to take care of him. Right now he’s under a chair that my brother is sitting in. This kitten was also trying to get to know my (3 and 4 year old) cats and that didn’t work out, my cats hissed and ran off..

    So I’m gonna work this out. I wanna fatten up the kitten rand get him to like people before finding a home.

    • Katie says:

      It has worked so well for me Amy! Just take it slow, and be as patient as you can. Try not to get discouraged, which is easier said than done! I would love to hear a progress update!

  3. Amber says:

    We just caught a 6 week old feral kitten. Was trapped in our garage and we spent 3 days before we were finally able to get him. This is all great advice. It’s not my first rodeo – we’ve rescued five baby kittens at about 4-5 weeks old, they were living in a boat engine in my neighbors back yard. While they all slowly got better at different varying times, one of them still remained skittish with most people.

    The kitten we just caught – We have him in a small bathroom. He’s very comfortable with people holding him, he will purr, climb on your shoulders, headbutt and rub his head into you, but anything on the ground freaks him out pretty badly still. After reading your article, we are going to try some play therapy. Any specific tips we should be aware of? He has a great personality after about 15 minutes of pets and scratches he perks up when your holding him. But as of right now, he is even too afraid to walk around and go to the bathroom somewhere, he just goes where he is. He is getting de-wormed today, and we’re hoping to put some weight on him and help his digestive system balance out.

    Thanks for the article!

  4. Brendon says:

    Great article. I have two Ragdoll kittens that are three weeks apart in age. The first obviously spent three weeks with my wife before the second arrived and he has adopted us as his family, often calling out to us when he cant see us and following us all over the house. The second kitten is really lovable at times , curled up in front of the fireplace or on our bed at night he will happily purr away when we rub his tummy or stroke him, this extends to meal times however most often when my wife and I walk into a room he will dissappear under furniture and will not venture out unless entice him out as part of a game and sometimes not even then, preferring to sit staring at us till we move off.

    The little one is 15 weeks old and very much seems to have adopted the 18 week old in that he follows the older kitten around like the older kitten does us… any ideas on how we win the little one over. I try the playing with him bit but as the older kitten is always about he tends to dominate the playtime?

    • Katie says:

      Thanks!

      You really have the right idea playing with the younger kitten to get him to enjoy your company and feel more comfortable around you. You can try keeping the cats separated during play time so that the younger one has playtime all to himself. You mentioned that the younger kitten hides under furniture…if the new kitten is in a room with a door you might try playing with him when he is alone in that room and shutting the door so the older kitten can’t interrupt playtime. Alternatively, have separate play sessions with each cat. Your wife can play with one kitten in one room and you can play with the other kitten in a different room, or different space. Try to keep the older kitten playing where he is out of sight of the younger kitten’s playtime; or get him a far more exciting toy! 🙂

      I have an older cat who I brought in from outside. He was terrified of all of us at first. He would hide behind furniture. He ran away when we tried to touch him. With time, love, playing and petting when being fed he came around. He is now the biggest baby I have ever met. It sounds like your little dude is doing well though, especially since he lets you pet him and curls up with you. He also has his older brother as a role model, to help him understand that you are not going to hurt him.

      Depending on how long you have had the younger kitten I wouldn’t be too concerned. It does take time for some cats to adjust to their new home. The only other advice I would have if you are concerned, is to contact the breeder or rescue group you got the younger kitten from. If you got the kitten from a breeder she might have some advice on how to work specifically with him, or she might be able to give you some insight into his history–was he always more retiring around humans? Was his mother the “shy” type as well? Did he just take more to the other kittens. The breeder might also have some insights into behavior traits specific to Ragdolls that I am missing.

  5. Leila says:

    Hello,

    I just adopted two cats here in morocco.They were both living on a small security guard’s roof, next to an open air parking, along with their siblings and other cats, but they were both part of the same “group”. One is 6 month old and injured, and the other is almost three month old. My flat is pretty small (45m Square feet) and they haven’t been here for a week still. When they first got here they both hide under the toilet for almost 24hours. Before i left the flat for a few hours on the first day, I had placed a litter box, food and water, and when I came back they were still extremely scared and hiding, but during my absence they had eaten a bit and pooped on the couch, floor and carpet. On the second night, the eldest (Lana) woke me up and she came out from under the bed, still very very shy and scared but i could tell she wanted me to cuddle her, so i did very lightly and the response was pretty positive, after a few minutes she went back to hide, but in general she ended up being the one that is the most comfortable coming out to eat or else. At the time i’m writing this, they both just came back from the vet, and hiding under the bed. After two days together, and I had never seen the small one (Ayo) yet, at night, Lana came out and when the small one wanted to leave the room to come to us in the living room just to have a glance at what is going on, Lana was very agressive to her. Another time i gave them food on separate plates, and Lana came out to eat hers and than went under the bed where i had put the little one’s plate so she could eat, she came and eat Ayo’s food, and also hit him in the face when Ayo tried to eat her own food. Also after three days here at home, they have pooped absolutely everywhere, closet carpets and especially the sofa, I can recognise poop from both of them. I tried putting Lana is the litter box along with her own poop, but she gets too scared and leaves running under the bed. Also I still haven’t safe proofed the balconies so i could barely open the windows, since i only have two balconies and no windows. I am extremely lost here, between the peeing and pooping issue, the aggressivity of Lana towards the kitten who is so keen on her but so scared of her at the same time that he would hide just next to the bed, as sometime lana would not let Ayo hide under it with her, or even when Ayo tries to eat her food she gives her that look. Please Advices are very welcome, thank you

  6. Erica Smith says:

    My husband and I got a rescue kitten just today and I am reading up online on how to care for it. I love this article and ideas. How long would you say it takes to socialize a 3mo old kitten? We have a dog cage for her now until we can trust her to not hide from us in our attic apartment. We let her out to play with us. I am currently leaving the door to the cage open when I am in the room with her. How often should I force her out to play? Some info I read said to let them have their space. How much play vs alone time/space should I allow her?

  7. Helen says:

    Hi! Thanks for this article – very helpful!! We just rescued 3 kittens of about 10 weeks which had been abandoned in the woods. They’re each a bit different, with one much more nervous than the others. We brought them home, and installed them in our lounge – now I realize this was our first mistake, as they retreat to hide under the sofa where they are very hard to reach. We have a one-bed apartment, so no possibility to shut them in a spare room. We took them to the vet and they are all fine, although the process of extracting them from the sofa to get them there may have left some further psychological scars 😦

    They’ve been making good progress: been doing the play and food therapy thing, and they’re definitely getting more relaxed. However, they still draw back if I try and touch them (except for one of them, while eating), won’t take food off my hand, and generally scarper if I move too fast while standing up.

    This is about 10 days after first bringing them home, so early days… perhaps it will just take time. Nonetheless have also been wondering about a couple of specific options to help the process. In particular, any thoughts on whether it’s worth trying to block off the under-sofa space? We have other comfortable hiding places for them; the sofa is just particularly inaccessible and I worry it’s allowing them to be too much in their own space avoiding me! On the other hand, not sure whether now they’ve got used to being there, blocking off the sofa space will just stress them out even further 😦

    Also wondering whether actually it would be better for their future happiness if we separate them sooner rather than later (we don’t intend to keep all 3 long-term). They love playing together… but wondering if this makes them less inclined to engage with humans?

    Any advice much appreciated!

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