Kittens who don’t have human contact soon after being born will become feral, whether their mother is feral or not. In fact, in order to avoid a lifetime of feral behavior and to give kittens a chance at being adopted into loving homes, kittens must be socialized to humans within the first 8 weeks* of their lives.
Socializing kittens requires a massive amount of time, compassion, and patience, but this comes with a substantial reward at the end. Here are 8 tips to get you started.
* Feral kittens still have a chance of being socialized between 2-4 months old, but it takes much more time, skill, and patience and is not for the average person.
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1. Keep them in a small, confined room
When you bring your kittens home, allow two days for them to get familiar with the unique sounds and smells of your home before you start interacting with them beyond tending to their water, food, and litter box. Kitten-proof the room before they arrive, making sure it’s safe for curious kittens to explore. Don’t underestimate a kitten’s ability to slip into small spaces.
Initially confining them to a small room will help them feel safe and get acclimated to their new environment quicker. This is key, as they need to feel safe and secure in order to trust you later. Confining them to a smaller space will work to your advantage too since it’ll mean less places for them to hide when you are ready to start working with them.
The confined space is only necessary until they feel safe enough to fall asleep on you or they purr in your presence.
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2. Handle them every day and play, play, play
To properly socialize, you’ll need to devote at least two hours per day to touching, handling, and playing with the kittens. You can break the two hours up into small chunks though, if necessary. In the beginning, handle the kittens soon after they’ve eaten. This will help them associate the pleasure of eating with being held. Hold them close to you so they can feel your body heat and heartbeat.
Once the kittens are around 3-4 weeks old they’ll start being interested in playing with toys. This is a great opportunity to use interactive toys like wand toys or a laser pointer to help the kittens associate you with fun playtime.
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3. Move slowly, speak softly
When you’re working with animals that are scared and skittish, it’s important to do as much as you can to create an environment that is calm and soothing. This starts with the way you speak and move when you’re around them.
Cats are also masters at reading your body language and tone of voice. They will be more at ease if they sense that you are calm and gentle.
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4. Be patient
Socialization won’t happen overnight and not all kittens will respond to your efforts at the same pace, even if they are from the same litter. Respect that they are individuals and give extra attention to kittens who aren’t responding as quickly. Don’t become discouraged or impatient if your kittens are hissing, spitting, or hiding in the beginning. Those are just the ways that kittens naturally react to fear, and they’ll lessen as you continue to work with them. Be calm and don’t rush the process.
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5. Reward positive behavior
Kittens are very motivated by rewards. Feel free to give them small portions of wet food or kitten-appropriate treats when they come close to you, allow you to pick them up, or play with you. The socialization period is not an appropriate time to scold or punish kittens for “bad” behavior.
6. Use food to your advantage
Kittens can have access to dry kitten food at all times, but remain present when you feed the kittens their wet food meals. This will help them associate you with something they love. Move the plate of food a bit closer to you each day until the kittens eventually trust you enough to eat the food off the plate in your lap.
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7. Provide lots of different surfaces to explore
Since the ultimate goal of socialization is to prepare the kittens for adoption, it will benefit them to be familiar with and comfortable in a variety of environments. As the kittens become more independent and brave, allow them to explore more of your home (that has been kitten-proofed, of course) and allow them to walk on different surfaces such as carpet, tile, and wood. Also expose them to grass, dirt, and concrete if you can do it in a safe way.
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8. Introduce to other friends, animals, and children
In addition to exposing them to different surfaces that they may find in their future homes, you can help make a kitten more adoptable by introducing them to a variety of people, animals, and children. Once the kittens are comfortable being held, start inviting friends over for play. I doubt you’ll have a hard time finding people who will jump at the chance.
All introductions should be closely monitored for safety, particularly when other animals and children are involved.