Remembering The Kittens On National Feral Cat Day

Feral kittens are happiest outside.

Feral Cat Day has come and gone for this year. But I’m still thinking about the kittens… the tiny wild ones who will be “rescued” and taken to shelters where they will be killed, or tamed and socialized and adopted to homes, where most of them will live out their lives in fear.

I know those “tamed, socialized” and adopted kittens. I know them well. Many of my pet sitting cats began life as feral kittens. Today, they live strictly indoors as terrified adults.

They’re the cats who run for the nearest hiding place when the doorbell rings. They’re the ones who cower under a bed or in the deepest, darkest corner of a closet when a stranger is in the house. That stranger could be the cat sitter who has been visiting them for years, but they still hide.

I’ve found frightened cats in box springs and behind washers and dryers. I discovered Holly, who was adopted from my rescue and had known me for years, hiding behind the speakers of her family’s stereo system. Frosty somehow managed to get inside an armoir, where she was safe from the invader who was there to give her food. Meanwhile, her brother, who’s not the smallest cat I’ve ever known, took refuge underneath a treadmill.

In time, many of these hidey cats become my friends. But others never do. And some find a new hiding place the second I discover the first one.

A lot has changed for feral cats since I began rescuing more than 30 years ago. Today, we do trap/neuter/return, instead of trap/neuter/relocate or trap/neuter/adopt. Today, we think of feral cats as community cats and realize that even if they have just one feeder, their welfare is the entire community’s responsibility.

But that idea has yet to trickle down to the kittens. Much to my dismay, many rescuers still take the kittens out of colonies, “tame and socialize them” and adopt them out to homes where they’re never completely comfortable and never feel completely safe. There are exceptions, of course, but I know very few of them. 

Some Thoughts On Trap/Adopt

When would-be rescuers ask me, I beg them to not trap/adopt. Maybe the most compelling reason is that the shelters are overflowing with kittens. They’re tame kittens who would appreciate a good home if they were lucky enough to find one. And since their lives are at stake, they’e in urgent, desperate need. Meanwhile, the feral kittens already have homes, in our woods, our parking lots, our alleys and our backyards.

Maybe they’re not the kinds of homes we want for them. But when we rescue, we have to think about what the cats want, not what we want for them. What the cats want is to stay outside with their families and friends. 

The other reason, that’s almost as compelling to me, is that feral kittens can be very difficult to tame. Socializing them so they’re comfortable with all humans, not just the person who tamed them, is even more difficult, and very few people succeed.

So those lovingly “tamed” kittens grow up to be fearful adults who hide at the first sign of a stranger entering their homes. No cat should have to live in constant fear. ​

How To Tame Feral Kittens

 I give this advice reluctantly because I really want you to get those feral kittens you found neutered/spayed, vaccinated, ear tipped and microchipped and put them back outside. With daily meals and a shelter so they can get out of the cold and rain, chances are they’ll live long and happy lives.

But if you just can’t resist the urge to try to make those wild but beautiful and just too cute babies into house cats, this is the way to tame feral kittens. Sometimes it works; sometimes it does not.

Before you start, set a time limit. If the little ones are still hissing and wild after, say a month or so, realize that they are not going to turn and put them back outside after they’ve been neutered/spayed. They’ll thank you for giving them their freedom and letting them live their lifestyle of choice.

Something else to keep in mind is that all kittens need to get used to being handled by humans when they’re very young if they’re going to become comfortable with people. If your kittens are over six weeks old, it’s probably too late. 

The first step is to bring all the kittens, not just the one you want to keep, inside and set them up in a huge dog crate. Bring the mother in, too. Kittens need to be with their mothers, not just for nourishment, but to learn how to be cats. Get the mother spayed and put her back out when the kittens are about eight weeks old. 

The crate needs to be large enough for food and water bowls, a litter box, and a box or cat bed for hiding. Cover part of the top of the crate with a sheet so the cats won’t feel so vulnerable. Then…

  • Put a radio tuned to a quiet and polite talk station (NPR) or a television in their room so they can get used to the sounds of different human voices. The best TV stations for cats are the Golf and shopping channels. Animal Planet can be too violent and gruesome.
  • Play with them with an interactive wand or fishing pole toy. That’s a good way for them to associate something fun with you without having to get too close. 
  • Touch the kittens as much as possible. 
  • Invite friends over to visit your new kittens. They need to get used to the company of many humans, not just you. 
  • When the kittens are touchable, let them out of the crate, but keep them confined in a room. You don’t want them to disappear someplace in your house!
  • Get down to their level by sitting or lying on the floor. Read or watch TV, but don’t make eye contact with them. Make a trail of treats from them to you. That’s a way to get them to come close. 
  • Don’t forget your playtime with the wand or fishing pole toy!

Taming feral kittens can be rewarding and fun. But making sure your kittens are well-socialized is just as important as taming them if they’re going to live in homes in close proximity to people. And if you do adopt them out, adopt them in pairs. Kittens need to grow up with other kittens to be happy, healthy and well-socialized. 

Know The Facts Before You Rescue Feral Kittens

The feral kittens you found are adorable, and you want them to live long, happy, healthy lives. But they can, and most likely will, if you leave them outside. Unless they’re in a very dangerous location, they don’t need to be rescued.

Before you trap/adopt, it’s important to separate the facts from fiction about feral cats. 
Fiction: Feral cats live short, miserable lives.
Fact: Writing for The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, veterinarians Julie K. Levy and Cynda Crawford say studies show that feral cats in managed (trapped/neutered/returned) colonies often live as long as house cats and die of the same diseases of old age, cancer and kidney failure. Some friends and I feed a colony of cats who are about 13 years old.
Fiction: Feral cats are diseased.
Fact: Sterilized feral cats who have regular meals and cold weather shelters are generally as healthy as house cats, and may be even healthier. In their article, Levy and Crawford discuss a study that found feral cats brought in to spay/neuter clinics were “generally in good health, and the incidence of disease in feral cat colonies is no higher than among owned cats.”
Fiction: Feral cats are prone to feline leukemia, FIV and rabies.
Fact: In an interview with Maddie’s Fund, Levy said “feral cats have about the same very small incidence of feline leukemia and FIV as domestic cats. Feral cats in managed colonies are vaccinated and can’t get or transmit rabies.
Fiction: It’s too cold for cats to be outside in the winter. They’ll be uncomfortable and freeze to death.
Fact: Cats are very good at keeping warm, even in the coldest weather. Give your cats heavily insulated cold weather shelters and they’ll be cozy and warm all winter. Just be sure to keep the snow away from the entrances so they don’t get trapped inside. 
Fiction: Feral cats fight constantly.
Fact: Most cats avoid fights at all costs, and sterilized cats rarely fight.
Fiction: Feral cats use flowerbeds as litter boxes and annoy the neighbors.
Fact: This can be true, but there are deterrents to discourage cats from using flowerbeds as litter boxes and sitting on cars.  

When Feral Kittens Grow Up

Feral cats can be wonderful friendsTank

It’s been a long time since I shared my life with feral kittens. Charlie and Tank, the feral cats in my life, are wise, wonderful adults. Although I can’t touch them, I love the time I spend with them in the woods. Charlie meets me on the path every day, and we walk together to their feeding station. Then we talk for a few minutes before I fix their food and leave them to their meal.

They’re healthy and happy. And for those few minutes before they begin to eat, they invite me into their peaceful, more rational world where all the stress of an otherwise stressful life fades away.

Many of the once feral pet sitting cats share their other world with me, too. I might have to visit them in their hiding places, and I know I’ll never be able to touch them. But for just a few minutes, when I lie on the floor and put some treats under the bed where they’re hiding, we connect in love and friendship. These are special moments for me, and I cherish every one of them.

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