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.
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.
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.