Wednesday , 20 September 2017

Lesson 2 of Socializing Feral Kittens: Give ‘Em Time, Food, and Personal Space

A few weeks ago I wrote a post detailing the adventures of the two feral kittens my family fostered over the summer, from their tricky capture to exploring our house to being re-captured in a safe socialization space. If you missed it, you can read the post over here for the context of this “part 2” post.

So the boys had been set up in their foster room, and this is basically what they looked like all the time:

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I think even non-cat people can recognize that these are two terrified kittens. We had to implement a plan to pull them out of their nervous shells and trust us. Part one of the plan: get the kittens to our veterinarian. Since any amount of handling was traumatic (psychologically for the kittens and physically for us), we had no idea what sexes they were. Just looking at them, the tabby-and-white one was much smaller, so we thought he was a girl – and in the animal kingdom there are unfortunately no reservations about reproducing with a sibling. We had to get these kittens vaccinated and ready to be spayed/neutered as soon as possible. The hardest part was catching the kittens – you’d think we’d be pros at it by this point, but no. To lessen their stress, my mom and I set up a big crate with an opening in the top, rather than the traditional small carriers where they’d have little space and would have to be separated. The little one was touchable, so it was easy to snatch him and set him down in the crate, but then the orange one…that was a trial. He was chased around the room for a good fifteen minutes until he made the mistake of jumping into a box, which I immediately covered with a blanket and then wrapped him up and dropped him into the crate too. Capture complete!

"We hate you." - the kittens
“We hate you.” – the kittens

The vet visit itself, although less difficult, was still eventful. The little one, who we had named Lacey, was manageable; of course he was revealed to be a boy, which meant we’d have to rethink the name. And then there was the big redhead, named Redpath. He escaped my grip during the examination, got a good bite in, and then bounced around the entire room. The gentle but firm restraint had to be traded for the dreaded leather gloves while the vaccine and topical dewormer were administered. And then we were left with the omen of our veterinarian: “I haven’t seen a lot of cats this age as bad as Redpath who have gone on to be socialized…” Yeah, well, we’ll show you! (Disclaimer: I respect my vet a lot, but as a former colleague there is great satisfaction in proving him wrong.)

After the traumatic veterinary visit, we moved on to part two of the plan: socialize every day. Every. Day. We had made the environment the best we could, with and open space where we could see the cats and they could see us, and with a Feliway diffuser constantly filling the room with calming pheromones. Now we had to work at placing humans in that environment and making it clear that we were not threats.  To implicate everyone in the family in this socialization task, I made a chart and kept in obvious view on the fridge; everyone was to document the time they spent with the ferals, with the ultimate goal being minimum one hour a day of human presence in the feral room.

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Okay so we weren’t consistently good with the “one hour a day” thing, but the progress seen from just being in the room on a regular basis was incredible. When I would go into the feral room, I would mostly just play handheld video games – that way I was present, visible, making sounds, and not imposing myself on the cats. I would also always be sure to leave some treats next to the boys whenever I visited the room, to create a positive association. Food became a significant helper in our quest to socialize the ferals, but we couldn’t make full use of food bribery because they initially refused to eat while any of us humans were in the room. As they grew more accustomed to our presence, though, they would immediately snatch up treats when we gave them, and would polish off the plates of canned food we would bring them every morning and evening. We felt it important to split those canned food treats into two meals, as this would double the amount of positive association they got every day.

Cedar (formerly Lacey, back when presumed a female) was the bravest. He would go straight for the food we brought him and, if Redpath didn’t gain the courage to eat while we were present, Cedar would devour Redpath’s food too. Although both cats virtually lived behind the bed, Cedar would let me pat him to a certain degree. He wasn’t down for a full back massage or anything, but I would regularly rub the backs of my fingers against his cheeks in hopes of building his confidence. Cats release pheromones from their cheek glands to mark their territory and create spaces where they feel everything is okay; I was hoping that some of the comforting effects of those pheromones would be felt if I focused my patting on Cedar’s cheeks.

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Through some combination of the food, the unimposing presence every day, and some gentle physical contact, Cedar found his trust in us. I remember the exact moment: it was the night before his and Redpath’s neuters were scheduled, and I went in to visit the boys before lights out. I gave Cedar the usual face-rub and…he purred! He leaned into my hand and he purred! He let me pat him, and stretched out, completely at ease with my presence. It was such an incredible step forward and I was terrified that the next day’s vet visit would ruin the progress. Thankfully this was not the case, and soon enough Cedar would regularly hop up onto the bed and roll around like a housecat that had been domestic his whole life.

Redpath was still very much a work-in-progress. With the incredible change in Cedar, however, my family had new hope for him (although I can assure you that the goings-on at the vet clinic on the day of the boys’ surgeries did nothing to help their reputation with the staff there). The tale of these two ferals will finally be wrapped up in my next post, Lesson 3 of Socializing Feral Kittens: Even MORE Patience, and Positive Role Models. Surely you must be wondering what has become of these brothers, so you can look forward to finding out in the next post!

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