Feral Cats Ireland
 How to tame feral kittens/cats

Many people have feral/wild kittens and cats in their garden and want advice on taming them. Here is what has worked for me in the past. 

It’s important to accept that many feral/wild adult cats never tame or take months or years to do so.  And it mostly happens on their terms, not yours.  So it’s often best to have them trapped, neutered and returned to stop them breeding after which they should be fed twice daily and weatherproof shelter provided for them to sleep in.  Eventually, they may come to trust you and allow you to pet them. 

As already stated, the first most important thing to have done if you have feral cats and kittens in your garden or at your workplace is to have them trapped, neutered and returned (TNR) to stop them breeding.  Otherwise the numbers will spiral out of control.  Contact your local rescue or vet or consult the TNR Volunteer list to find TNR volunteers in your area. 

Feral/wild kittens, up to 12 weeks of age will usually tame with a bit of work.

The optimum time to tame feral/wild kittens is when they are 5/6 weeks old.  In normal circumstances, kittens should remain with their mother until they are minimum 8 weeks old but with feral kittens it’s fine to take them away from the mother at 6 weeks of age provided they are eating and drinking on their own.  Already at this young age, they have learnt from the mother to hiss, spit, bite, scratch and growl at humans but at this age also, they will tame very quickly, usually in a couple of days. Once the 6 week old kittens are removed from the mother, she needs to be spayed as soon as possible, otherwise she will be pregnant again soon.  

First, confine the kittens somewhere.  A dog pen is ideal and the photo above shows the typical layout for kittens-in-taming.  It’s a good idea to cover the dog pen with a large sheet with just the front section uncovered.  This will help make the kittens feel more secure.  However if you don’t have a dog pen handy, a small shed or bathroom is the next best thing.  (In warm weather, please be very careful of confining kittens or cats in timber, steel or plastic sheds which can heat up to an unacceptable level causing heat exhaustion and possible death.  Ensure there is plenty of air circulating via an open door or window with a screen in place to prevent the animals escaping.).

Provide bedding, litter trays, toys, water and feed as normal 3/4 times daily.  The importance of confining the kittens is so that they can't run away from you, though it is essential they have somewhere to hide such as cardboard boxes or covered cat carriers. Out in the open they have the space to run from you, the idea is to get them to run towards you.  How to do that?  Treats!  More on that in a moment.

For kittens who are 6 weeks old, the best way to tame them quickly is to cover your hand with a thick towel (to protect from bites and scratches), pick one kitten up by the scruff of the neck, wrap the towel gently around it leaving just it’s head poking out, place on your lap and start gently and slowly stroking the back of its head as you would a tame pet cat.  Speak softly and slowly if you must but initially stay as quiet and still as you can.  It will probably hiss and spit with gusto but ignore and eventually you may hear a purr.  Do this with each kitten as often as you can every day.   Handle and pet and offer treats of tiny, minced up cooked bits of chicken or ham often and usually by day two, they are purring away and happy for human attention.

For older kittens, it’s not a good idea to start taming by picking them up.  Despite their small size, they can scratch and bite deeply and painfully.  And indeed you may need medical attention and a tetanus shot if bitten.  The best approach with older kittens is to have some finely chopped cooked chicken, fish, beef or ham and for the first few days, just throw it gently in their general direction.  Throw it towards them and quietly walk away, don't wait around to see if they come to it or eat it, just leave them to it.  Do this a couple times a day until they begin to tentatively come towards you when they see you coming. 

At this point, you switch to a different type of food.  Fish or chicken paste (found in the sandwich spreads section in the supermarket) or plain cheese spread are all fantastic, kittens seem to love them!  At this point also, you begin to sit on the floor of the shed or bathroom, legs stretched out in front of you or kneel at the door of the dog pen.  Scoop out some fish/chicken paste with a teaspoon, throw some in the direction of the kittens, leave some on the spoon and place it a bit away from you but near the kittens.   Stay perfectly still, quiet and make very little eye contact (cats perceive prolonged eye contact as a threat), just glance occasionally and wait.  No matter how close the kittens get to you, DO NOT reach out to touch them or they will run away.  You MUST have patience. Throw the fish/chicken paste/cheese spread to them a few times during each session. You may find that one kitten is more confident than the others and comes closer to you which is great!  Let him or her lick the paste off the spoon while you hold it in your hand. 

Follow this routine for a few days.  Then try sitting on the floor and putting some paste/spread on each of your fingertips, stretch out your hand towards the kittens, rest it on the floor, fingers splayed and stay still and quiet.  Let the kittens come and lick the paste/spread off your fingertips.  Usually if one does it, the rest will follow. Again DO NOT try to touch them, it's too soon.  And only make brief eye contact.  You'll see yourself they'll back away if you look at them too much.  So keep it to a minimum for now, you can build this up later.  Repeat putting the paste/spread on your fingertips and reaching out your hand to them a few times per session. You may find at this point the kittens become curious and start sniffing your shoes or clothes, this is great!  They may start playing with your shoe laces, let them.  The more you stay still and quiet, the more they will approach to investigate you which is the object of the exercise.

After another few days, bring your hand with the paste/spread on the fingertips nearer to your lap while you are sitting and you’ll probably find they begin clamouring across you legs to get at the food, this is great!  It shows they are getting comfortable being close to you.  Eventually rest your hand on your lap with the food in it and while the most confident kitten is eating, try stroking it gently down its back with a long handled bath brush.  Hopefully the kitten won't jump away from you.  If it does, then keep going with the eating out of your hand and try again a few days later.  Using the long handled bath brush to stroke the kittens gets them used to being touched and stroked.  Eventually one day when they are totally relaxed with the bath brush, you can substitute your hand.  They probably won’t even notice!  Introduce more eye contact at this point, but don't stare.  Now is also a good time to incorporate physical contact at feeding times and when emptying the litter tray so the kittens don't just associate it with treats. 

Once you feel the kittens are totally relaxed with being petted, try lifting one kitten onto your lap.  It should snuggle there happily, accepting pets, treats and purring away!  And all the work and patience will have been worth it!  However, if the kitten is wriggling to get free, you are moving too fast and need to go back a few steps.

Another way to get them to come closer to you is to get a toy on a wand and while the kittens are busy chasing it around and playing with it, they won’t notice the toy is on the floor one minute and on your lap the next and back on the floor, and then on your legs and so on. 

Try to stick with the taming process, even if it takes a couple of weeks or longer. Some days it may seem like two steps back, one step forward but don't give up.  Tame friendly kittens have a much better chance of finding a home than feral ones plus they are easier to medicate and get into a cat carrier for trips to the Vet. 

To summarise:  Confine.  Use treats.  Brief eye contact.  Take it slowly.   Resist the urge to touch too soon.  Have patience.  Don't give up.   Enjoy the success!  

Check out the 3 Youtube videos below from Urban Cat League which demonstrate all of the above and more.