How to Socialize a Kitten
Congratulations on deciding to foster and socialize kittens! Spending time with these fuzzy little guys, though a lot of work, will also be a lot of fun. We have tons of tips on how to help your mini kitties feel at ease around people, and how to help them grow up to be loving companion animals. Now let’s get down to business!
Socializing Older Kittens
Alley Cat Allies does not, in general, recommend trying to socialize a feral cat over 4 months of age. However, there is a gray area in which the personality of the individual cat comes into play. Between 4 and 8 months of age, if there is time and capacity and if the kitten is showing meaningful signs of social behavior, the decision may be made to place the kitten in a foster home for socialization and eventual adoption.
But keep in mind that socializing is time-consuming, especially for older kittens. It involves interacting with the kittens one-on-one for at least a couple of hours every day, and results are not guaranteed. It is important to do an honest assessment of the kitten’s progress during this time.
If she does not show increasing signs of socialization within a week or so, it is best that she is returned to her colony outdoors through Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR). To do otherwise is to expose the kitten to ongoing stress. Kittens will be safe and healthy in their outdoor homes with their feline families.
Help Kittens Feel Comfortable
First things first, set up the crate they’ll be staying in and make sure it’s off of the floor—cats feel safer if they’re higher up where they can see their surroundings. After you bring the kittens inside and get them set up in their crate, give them an initial two-day adjustment period before trying to socialize them too much–the change of scenery can be stressful!
When you do start to spend time with them, begin by moving slowly and speaking softly, and try to keep loud TV or music down. For very young kittens, a soothing technique is to wrap a ticking clock in a towel. It reminds them of their momma’s heartbeat.
After they’ve been with you for a few days, try leaving a TV or radio on so they can get used to people voices and sounds. If there aren’t other pets around, you can leave the crate in a busy part of your home, like the living room, so they can begin to see and hear other areas of the home.
Like anyone, kittens react positively to positive experiences and negatively to negative experiences. Don’t hold back! Reward kittens when they do well, like come up for snuggles, and avoid scolding.
If a litter of kittens are slow to socialize, you might want to separate the kittens into individual crates or spaces so that they can rely on people more. Or you can make sure to spend some quality time alone with each one. When they feel more comfortable with you, they can be reunited with their brothers and sisters.
Be patient! Spitting, hissing, and hiding are all expressions of fear, not signs of aggression.
Socialize With Food
Kittens love food (who doesn’t), and giving the little ones food creates an incentive for them to interact with you and also forms positive associations. Keep dry kitten food out all day, but when you feed wet food, stay in the room so they associate you with food and start to trust you. If they’re scared at first, try to give them food on spoon.
Over time, move the food plate closer to your body while you sit in the room, until the plate is in your lap and the kittens are comfortable crawling on you to get to it.
Pet the kittens for the first time while they’re eating so they stay put. Start petting their little faces, chins, and behind their ears and work up to petting all over. Also take your time building up to holding the kittens, and reward them with some canned cat food or chicken-flavored baby food on a spoon—kittens love people baby food! (Make sure it doesn’t have onion, which is toxic to cats.)
Don’t give kittens food on your finger though, and don’t allow them to play with your hand, or bite or scratch you. A bite from even a young kitten can be painful! Plus, it teaches the kittens that biting is okay (which it’s not!).
Socializing With Play
Playing with kittens can help them build trust for people. At least two hours a day of play (all together or broken up) can do the trick—it will go by fast, don’t worry! Take time to socialize each of the kittens in a litter individually, while you’re down on their level.
Once you’ve spent enough time with them that they let you hold them, hold the kittens as much as possible. Make sure they are close to your body so they feel your body warmth and heartbeat. If a kitten is particularly feisty, put her in a front-carrying pack or papoose (lightly, but snugly wrap) her in a towel with only the head out and hold her while doing things around the house. Around 3 to 4 weeks old, kittens will love to play with toys, and you should encourage that!
Once the kittens are comfortable enough to fall asleep on your lap or purr around you, they can move from the kitten room to a larger, kitten-proof room.
Introduce New Friends
The goal is to socialize the kittens so that they are comfortable around all people and pets and will be happy in their new homes, so introduce them to new some faces! As long as all are healthy, you can introduce kittens to a grownup cat, but keep a close eye to make sure everyone gets along okay. A neutered tom cat will likely play and groom the kittens, which is too sweet.
Kittens that were outside and are still frightened can hurt you if you are not careful, so don’t hesitate to wear gloves or protective clothing if you feel it is needed.
Don’t take chances. Sometimes you have to scruff kittens by the back of their neck to gain control. To do it safely, use your entire hand and gently but firmly grasp the fur on back of neck without pinching, pull the cat up, and immediately support her hind legs.
Keeping Kittens Safe
Do not use toxic cleaning products or leave them in the room with kittens. For cleanups, use diluted bleach solutions (one part bleach to 15 parts water) in small amounts.
If kittens are in your bathroom, pull the shower curtain up and out of the way, so they can’t scale it like the little monkeys they can be, and take all knick-knacks and cleaning products out of the room.
Don’t keep kittens in a room with a reclining chair. The kittens can be injured or killed if they go inside the chair and accidentally get closed underneath. Double check windows and vents to make sure they are securely fastened—kittens can be little escape artists!
With these tips, the litter of kittens you’ve taken under your wing will soon be on their way to being fuzzy, cuddly little friends!