Written by Lynette Nicholson, founder of Nicholson Rescue
Professional photography by Strike a Pose Photography
Taming of feral kittens is an arduous task that takes time, patience and experience. Probably the first question that needs to be asked is whether the kittens can be tamed. Note that I refer to “kittens” and not “cats”, as it’s an almost impossible task to tame an adult cat that’s grown up feral*. These adults are best left where they are, provided they’re safe, sterilised and fed.
As a rule, we don’t attempt to tame any kittens over about nine weeks of age. The younger the better, but as kittens reach nine to ten weeks of age, it becomes very challenging to tame them, and then even if you are successful, older kittens tend to become bonded with the tamer and it’s difficult to home such a kitten to a new family.
Generally, we follow a number of guidelines when taming feral kittens:
1. When they first come in, they need to be confined to a relatively small space, like a bathroom, with not many spaces to hide in. If you put them in a bedroom which has nooks and crannies, you can be sure that these kittens will find the best hiding spot and will be very difficult to get to.
For the first few days, let them get used to you coming in and out of the room; talk to them so that they hear your voice, and make sure that their food, water, and litter are always in the same space. At this stage, routine is key. Don’t be perturbed if they don’t use their litter tray for a couple of days; this is a natural reaction.
At this stage, they’re fearful and don’t know whether the new environment is safe or not, so they’re reluctant to leave their smells around. Also, they’ll probably only eat at night when things are quiet.
2. During this time, you can start assessing their behaviour. Is there one particular kitten that’s more fearful than the others, who hisses and spits more, and who’d need more attention?
Sometimes, it may be necessary to split litters up if there are a few kittens. “Pack mentality” does occur, and they feel safer and braver in a group, often tending to hiss and spit more when they’re with their siblings or other kittens. I know it may seem sad to split them up, but it definitely can work to tame them quicker.
3. It takes a lot of patience. After a few days, you can start sitting with them (on the floor at their level), talking to them, and trying to play with them using a piece of string or a feather. A feather tied to the end of a stick can be used to softly stroke them from afar (and also protect your hands).
4. Once some progress has been made, we usually move these feral kittens into a cage into our lounge area. This cage is about 1m x 1m. They have an igloo, their food and water, and a litter tray in the cage. This works wonders, as it acclimatises the kittens to the “outside” world. They hear the television, they hear different voices, they hear the doorbell ring, the dogs barking and various other household noise. If feral kittens come to us very young, then they’re put into the cage in the lounge from the outset. We’ve had great success with this, and many a feral has become a friendly, easily homeable kitten using this method.
5. Taming of feral kittens involves them being handled by different people. I don’t believe that a feral kitten can be tamed by one person alone, as they become bonded to that person and find it difficult to relate to other people, making them very difficult to home.
So, the younger the kittens, the better chance you have of taming them completely. The process of taming isn’t for everyone, though, and it requires a great deal of commitment. If you’re not able to commit to this, it’s best to leave the process to someone who can dedicate the necessary time to it.
Sometimes it may feel like you’re taking one step forward and two steps back, but this is all part of the process, and perseverance is important. The end result is very rewarding, and the fact that you’ve helped a cat who would have had a life of difficulty as a feral, become domesticated, is so meaningful.
*A note on feral vs stray cats
It’s important to know that not every stray cat is a feral or “wild” cat. There are significant differences which affect the likelihood of them becoming pets or not. Find out more in our article on feral cats: https://www.happytailsmagazine.co.za/articles/features/cats-in-the-shadows/