As some of you know, taking hissy spitty kittens is one thing I like to think I specialize in. I've taken many sets, and had fairly good success with most of them, and great success with many of them.
I've had a few people ask for help with it recently and I thought it would be beneficial to do another "What I Know" post. As a reminder, this is what *I* know, either through what I've read and / or from first hand experience. I might not be the world's leading expert on the subject and someone else might have suggestions that work better *for you and your kittens* but this is what has worked for me.
First you need to determine what you are dealing with. There are several types of hissy spitty kittens. There are those that are fearful because they are feral (not stray, but actual wild animals that have no positive human interaction) and their mother taught them to trust nothing. There are those that are fearful because they were caught up by a great big huge being, shoved in a box, put in a car and driven, and than taken into a very loud oddly smelling building with dogs and had more people grab them and give them injections and flea medications, etc..
You also need to account for personality. Alpha cats are going to put on a tougher front but will be more willing to challenge you and thus often come around a lot quicker then your beta or gama personality kittens.
Age is also a very important factor. Kittens are designed to be pretty open to new experiences the younger they are to help them be more adaptable to accept and thrive their surroundings. They learn from their mother what is safe and what isn't. Around 7-8 + weeks a feral kitten is MUCH harder to pull out of its shell than a 3-4 week old kitten. The older the kitten, the more time that needs to be invested and the trickier you need to be.
Do not be discouraged if it takes longer than you think it should. Do not give up. The kitten may never win congeniality awards, but it can turn into a very loving companion. And besides, wining the trust of a kitty who doesn't trust easily.. it makes it all worth it. I quite often come close to tears when I see a feral kitten take that first step of trust on their own.
First thing you need to realize is there is the language of cat. You need to know that coming right at them, looking them in the eye and then reaching your hand out to them to pat them are ALL huge challenges to a cat and each one on their own would frighten a kitten. These are actions of alpha cats set to put a smack down on a kitten, they are also actions of predators to their pray. You think you are being soft and generous, but what you are really doing is saying "I am going to kill you". And considering what their experiences with humans have been up to this point, all they can do is believe it. Your job, over however long it takes, is to desensitize your kitten to these moves. Look them in the eye when you feed them, put your hand out towards them to the point where they just start to flinch and then just leave it right there. When going at your kitten, try to always have yummy food. I like to make them 'work' for food. By getting something totally yummy, such as chicken breast (raw or cooked) or meat based baby food (meat and broth only) you can often entice kittens to walk toward you to get the food. If you can't, then moving the food toward them and placing it under their nose will often get them to eat. Cats won't eat in front of perceived danger, so what ever step you need to take to get them to do this will help them understand you are not a threat. For those very afraid I will often put a dab of the food on their nose so they have to lick it off. Someone who is going to eat them isn't going to feed them. (No, kittens haven't read Hansel and Gretel) If they won't lick it off while you are looking at them, turn away. Hopefully the next time you offer food they will take it, then the next time they will come closer to you to get to it.
|Happiness and Joy 2008|
Touching your kittens: You can't tame a kitten you can't touch. You can't touch a kitten that has a hiding spot that you can't reach easily enough to very easily pick up. Because of this I have a cat cage. but I have also used my bathroom. Provide hiding places, but make sure they are something you can get a kitten out of pretty easily with the least amount of trauma to them. You want to minimize that transition as much as you possibly can, so put yourself in a position that once you have your hands on the kitten you can get them up off the ground and into your arms as quickly as possible. I make myself comfortable on the ground so that I do not have to do much before they are secure. Another good reason to limit the space kittens have access to is the cat's sense of smell and how much comfort and security they gain from their environment smelling like them. This is why when cats are stressed they often start spraying. It is also why putting kitties in a new house is so darn overwhelming. They want to explore and scent everything, but they don't know what is around so they only feel comfortable moving when it is very quiet. Keeping that space limited will help them spread their scent easier.
I believe in "imposing myself" on kittens, but not forcing it. The second the kitten struggles to get down I put them down, but I do not let them go until all four paws are on the ground. This builds trust. If the kitten struggles hard on the way down, I return them to the security of my arms and try again when they calm down. You never want a kitten jumping out of your hands/arms and certainly no more then a step off you if they are on your lap. If they think "I have to escape there is no other way" each time they are picked up it is going to take longer for them to accept being held because they will be constantly looking for escape. If they learn that "when I ask to be put down I will be put down safely", they are more apt to sit quietly in your arms longer. Patting your kitten while you aren't holding it will often involve trickery. Wait until their head is buried in some food or if you are lucky enough while they are asleep. Come at them from the side or from behind slowly and if you are lucky enough to have a kitten who has 'elevator butt' then go right for that spot. (you know elevator butt don't you? When you pat at the base of their tail and they extend their legs as far as they will go so their butt goes high in the air.. ) if not pat gently a few times and stop as soon as the kitten realizes what is going on. If they don't make to run you can try for a few more pats the next time, but the key is to end on a positive note and not one where they are running. This is why you freeze your hand when moving it towards them and they tense up. You want to stop 'imposing' before they run and hide. The more times they run from you, the more likely they will to run the next time they encounter you no matter what you are doing.
|Kate and Pippa 2011|
You need to make sure the kittens associate you with all things awesome. When I set up kittens, they have food / water, litter and a bed / box to hide in. That is is. That is what they get for being alive, that which they do not need to work for. Their basic needs are met, but all extras need to be earned. Canned food is offered each time I go into the room. Toys are introduced and used while I am in the room. For kittens afraid when I get near I use stick or fishing pole type toys.
Feathers and other natural fibers such as fur are almost irresistible to kittens, for kittens so frightened they can't seem to move, often sliding a feather or some fur over their paw pads will peak their interest. Being far enough away that you can't seem to be able to grab them will open them up a bit, and with little bit you have gained another foot hold into "humans are awesome".
Getting kittens running after "prey" turns them from prey themselves into the predators that they need to be to be confident. They often lose track of that fear while "on the hunt" and at this point you can often circle them around closer and closer to you. See if you can't get them running near your feet or sit on the floor and see if you can't get them running over your legs. Sometimes they will and won't notice. Sometimes they'll notice and freeze up and run off. Just keep the play session going and try again later. If you can, get someone to help you, and have them (or you) lay on the floor (face down feels safer to me) and see if they can get the kittens running over all of you. I can quite often get kittens on my back that won't even look at me when I am sitting up or standing. Sometimes just laying there is enough.
|Kate and Pippa explore my husband ~2011|
For kittens that lack confidence a friend may be a good idea. Seeing if the shelter has a kitten of similar age that is outgoing can help shy kittens accept that climbing over humans isn't going to result in immediate death. Allowing them to see another kitten having fun, purring, venturing forth might spur the interest in the shy kitten.
|Outgoing "Bug" challenges Kate and Pippa to venture forth to try the food - 2008|
Self confidence is very very important. Right now your kitten's job in life is to survive. To that end it should be learning to hunt and kill and feed itself. Engaging with toys to work on that "stalk, hunt, pounce" instinct to help them 'learn to kill' will help feed that self confidence. Engaged play will help the kitten realize it can engage in the environment and survive, and then it can enjoy the process.
Having the mother cat does often seem to inhibit bonding. While in general I believe having a mother cat with kittens is very important, sometimes you have to make the call to separate them to help enhance their desire to bond with you. If mom is hanging around offering uber delicious milk and very comforting licks they are going to be less likely to seek you out. It is a judgement call if you think the mother is doing them some good. If they are of age to be weaned, it might just be the right decision to separate them sooner rather than later.
I have also found that taking the kittens out of their 'nest' and letting them investigate new environments can help a great deal with their self esteem.
|Squirrel at work - 2012|
|a 'faked outing' bring the kittens to my rabbit ~2009|
If need be, do not hesitate to use some "chemical" help to soothe the edges of their fear. Often kittens are so fearful they forget what they are afraid of, and simply respond to the instinct. There are a few products that can help with that. I have personal experience using a couple of them and highly recommend Rescue Remedy by Bach's Flower Essences. It is often recommended for dogs who are afraid of thunderstorms. I've used it myself in times of stress. I've also used a few of the individual flower essences both for myself and my cats. Flower Essences are not a 'medicine' but more of an herbal, it works subtly, but cumulatively. A lot of people think they are hooey and it is simply a placebo because it is subtle or possibly because they chose an essence for a different problem than what they are hoping to help; but even if it is, I've seen it work, so I say give it a try. I've also used Spirit Essences and really liked those as well. Now each individual responds differently because they are coming from completely different spaces. What works for one fearful cat might not work on another because what they are afraid of is different. I had Spirit Essence "Safe Space" work very well on two different sets of timid kittens. It is doing almost nothing for Frida. Feliway is a mimic of the welcoming pheromone that cats rub on things with their chin. It does not "calm" cats like a lot of people say it does, but makes the environment less frightening by making it smell thus feel more familiar. I've seen a lot of people say it doesn't work, but they have been using it to "calm" cats, and not understanding what it is doing and what its actual purpose is for. I used it when I moved my cats in my new home, and I liked it a lot. I've used it with a few adult fosters. I know several vets who use it in the cages or carriers for cats in their care.
I have also found that keeping the noise level consistent keeps kitties from regressing. I have used talk radio, classical radio, general TV, home shopping TV, among others to help the kittens get used to the sound of people. I also will do "challenge noises". If you have ever sneezed around a bunch of unsuspecting kittens you know what I mean. Loud clapping, sneezing, coughing, banging of cans pretty much anything out of the ordinary will help the kittens realize the world is not out to get them. They will tense, they will run, but the next time you do it, they won't tense as hard, or run as fast, because "it didn't go after them" the last time.. Just last night I made a few challenge noises and the kittens who run when I walk in the room just sat there and looked at me like I was crazy. It was pretty cool.
Three off the wall things.. first, make sure the kittens see you scoop their box. I'm not quite sure the reasoning behind this, but I've noticed it helps. Generally box scooping is a source of great fun for kittens and they like to participate in this "digging for treasure" (or is it "hey I buried that for a reason!!). Another is eat in front of your ferals. Not sure if this helps them realize you aren't going to eat them, or if they just like the idea of food. Lastly, talk to the kittens and tell them what you want from them. Tell them about snuggles and cuddles and all the wonderful things you want to do once they trust you. Praise them for being afraid. Praise them for eating. Praise that they are adorable. Praise each pounce and praise each gain you make. You will often feel foolish, but keep doing it.
Showing the kitten you know how to work with their natural reflexes can make you a bit less scary. Scruffing is one of them. It helps their mother carry them safely. It relaxes the kitten and they seem to go into a trance and wait for it to be over. Scruffing a kitten might be the only safe way to handle it, but remember two things, first not all kittens scruff, second you aren't a mother cat, so it should not be the only hand on the kitten. As soon as you can, use the second hand to support the body. A lot of people feel scruffing is inhumane. It can be when done incorrectly and or when done to kitties that don't have that reflex. For those kittens where the scruffing reflex is strong, I will often employ a secondary "hold". With the kitten on their back, and their head between my hands, I will massage the scruff. This takes a bit of trust on their part; I mean just getting a kitten on its back can be a fight. But when it works, they simply melt in your hands. Kittens also have a spot just beyond the corner of their mouth on each side that they often adore being rubbed gently. Using your fingertips in a soft circular motion is often enjoyed. Young kittens still like having their bellies rubbed as it is something their mother does to help aid digestion and to stimulate. If you rub on the back of their thighs they will often extend their legs and splay their back toes... this helps mom gain access to help with elimination. Once they are 3-4 weeks you can do this pretty easily with out risking being peed on. If these work for you, great. If they don't than don't feel bad. While some kittens have very strong reflexes and react almost immediately at being touched, some kittens have weaker ones and they just don't work no matter how much experience you have at it.
And lastly, make sure you spend as much time as you can ignoring them. Read a book, take a nap, watch a movie, write a letter, knit if you can. Do all of those things your own cats find absolutely irresistible and can not keep from getting in your way. Cats HATE to be ignored. Curiosity killed the cat (and satisfaction brought him back) isn't a cliche for no reason at all. By not challenging them all the time they can start to relax around you, and it gives them a chance to investigate what could possibly be more interesting than they are.
Questions? Comments? I would love to hear them..
I saw a post on Facebook suggesting that giving a feral kitten a bath would help 'deferal' them. David Kraft said that if you put them in a warm bath, preventing them from seeing the water before they enter it, then wrapping the kitten up in a warm towel, drying them off then giving them something yummy to eat it would work wonders.
I had such a hard time believing it, I stressed over doing it for a couple of days, and then thought that I doubted it could do much harm. I spent a few minutes with each kitten prior to the bath. I dosed them with some Spirit Essences and heard them both purr for the first time. They both went into the water easily. I put them in tail first while holding them by the scruff. I simply got the outside of them wet. No soap, no scrubbing, I'm fairly certain the water never even fully penetrated their fur. Did Evelyn first and handed her off to my husband to dry while I worked with Frida. Frida did so well that when she showed interest in seeing her sister I let her go. She voluntarily walked across my husband's lap and sniffed at Evelyn. She freaked a little when he reached out to pat her, but it would have gone very well if he hadn't.
I am going to try this again with the next set of ferals I get... preferably long before they hit 2lbs.. I can't imagine how or why this works. It wasn't like I washed any scent off of them, nor did either myself or my husband dry them in any way resembling their mom.. but one does not have to know why it works if it works.. they just have to be glad :)