Re: Christy is doing badly...
…feral kitten & cat socialization techniques…By Heidi Young
Hello, I am Heidi Young and I will be sharing the feral cat taming and socialization techniques I was taught through the For Paws Sake Adoption Program for taming and socializing feral and foster kittens/cats who needed more socializing and handling confidence before they could enter the adoption program to find a home.
Key elements of this program are patience, persistence and consistency applied in an advance/retreat method. You need to advance to make progress, but you need to retreat before you've reached the cat’s maximum tolerance level.
Through this handout, I will discuss in detail, my Kitty Cat Boot Camp methods for taming and socialization of the feral kitten/cat while keeping the handler safe. These techniques also work on adult cats who need more socialization and handling confidence.
I advocate pushing the cats' comfort boundaries little by little but being relentless and persistent in getting forward progress. You need to advance to make progress, but you have to watch the cat and retreat before you have reached the cats' threshold level of tolerance for the action. Watch the cat and continue to work up to their known limits, but then use your judgement to determine if the cat is ready to be pushed just a little further. In addition, you sometimes need to push a cat who has “stalled” in forward progress beyond their comfort zones to make that cat see and accept that what you are doing is good and not harmful. With this in mind, I feel it is important to mention how detrimental it is to allow a cat to call-the-shots without pushing them beyond what the cat believes is good enough. It is up to us to push beyond those barriers and show the cat a human/cat relationship can be better. Every cat who is fostered with me is worked through these progressions so I am assured of covering all areas and creating a confident cat who can become a family pet.
Of course, the younger you are able to trap and socialize a feral kitten/cat will give you faster results. However I also believe that older kittens reaching the generally accepted “cut off stage” can still be socialized and become great pets, it just takes more time. In addition, adult feral cats can also be handled in this manner, though I admit all of the adult ferals I have had contact with were first tamed outdoors and completely with their permission and acceptance, because they could leave my presence at any time, while progressing slowly through the stages of handling I employ with Kitty Cat Boot Camp. I would like to add that almost all adult feral cats I socialized and handled became my own happy housecats after we had progressed through certain key elements of my boot-camp program. These cats became and remained my own due to the amount of time I had to invest in them. My most challenging feral TNR took almost 4yrs from TNR to become one of my relaxed and confident housecats.
I place the kittens/cats in a small and safe environment. I remove anything the kittens could harm themselves with. I also make certain there is no place in that environment where they can hide and become inaccessible to me. I prefer to use my master bathroom which is easy to clean if there are any ‘elimination accidents’ and not a bedroom that has furniture that can be crawled under or into. I do want to provide them with a place to hide and feel secure, but I want to have access to them at any time I wish.
I have used the new/clean top of a jumbo litter-hood laid on a folded towel or blanket or a large cat carrier with a folded towel inside, the door propped open and another towel draped over the top to provide a more enclosed and ‘safe, cave-like’ area for them to feel comfortable in.
Certainly a person needs to work at the cat's speed, but you do need to make progress while you listen to what the cat can tolerate.
I will say again:
"Advance/Retreat. You need to advance to make progress, but you need to retreat before you've reached the cat’s maximum tolerance level."
In the fostering system, more cats can be helped if you can make progress quickly and maintain, reassure and reinforce that level of trust over a period of time before the cat goes to the adoption center to find their permanent home and then more fosters can come in to be helped on their journey to finding a loving home.
Patience and consistency is key and always be reliable. Not like ‘being on time' reliable, but as in ‘the kitten can rely on you and your actions’ reliable. This is the beginning of trust and I work hard to maintain it with no back-sliding. I will speak gently to them in a low voice. Sometimes I even just hum nonsense sounds. Anything that is slow and soothing. I will blink my eyes at them, or catch their gaze, blink slowly and slide my gaze away from them. This seems to tell them: “I am not so concerned that I feel I need to watch you every moment I am around you. I trust you.” This gives them the message that they can also begin to relax. Food is a great motivator and one I shamelessly use.
My Secret Weapon:
Cooked, shredded chicken breast mixed with an undiluted (or maybe just a little water or milk) can of Cream of Chicken Soup. Make sure the chicken pieces are small, kitty-sized bites and the CofCSoup helps the chicken bits stick to your fingers for hand feeding.
I stick some of the chicken mixture on the ends of my fingers and just reach my hand into the carrier opening. I don't go ALL of the way back to the kittens, but I do put my hand in pretty far. The usual reaction is to hiss and cringe backwards into a tight huddle, but they cannot resist the smell of that delicious chicken, and they begin to eat off my hand. Over time, sometimes a few days, I will be able to lure them closer to the opening of the carrier and even getting the braver ones to come out TO me. From there, I progress to canned food mashed around the edges of a plate and while they eat, I will pet and stroke them. I don't dab hesitantly or fearfully at them, I just reach out confidently and pet them. When they stop trying to scoot or slink away from my hand and pay more attention to eating, then they are ready to move on to the next step.
Kitty Cat Boot Camp Begins:
This is where I begin forcing my attention on them. I sit on the floor and grab them firmly (gently) by the scruff and place them on my lap, facing my knees. Then I hold them by the scruff and pet and rub them all over with my free hand. IF they begin to relax, I'll loosen my scruff hold and scrubble the fur at their neck to 'erase' the memory of me holding them. Then I let them move off my lap if they wish, though I continue to pet and ruffle their fur in a pleasing, massaging manner as long as they allow it.
The goal in this exercise is for them to walk, and not dart fearfully, away.
If the kitten is fearful and does not relax at all, I will only handle them for about 5-15 seconds per handling session. When I am done handling them I take them off my lap and set them close to the opening of the safe-cave and release them like it is no big deal. I do not watch them to judge their reaction because a direct stare is viewed by them as either predatory or confrontational. I know they may turn and look at me and I do not want them to see me staring at them with interest. I want them to learn that I will hold them, handle them, not hurt them and I will not hold them against their will forever because I will release them. Nothing to get worried or excited about.
The signal I am looking for when handling them is small signs of relaxation and I try to reward that by lowering my handling intensity, which encourages them to seek it.
As this progresses and you can see they aren't behaving in a confused manner when you set them away from you at the end of a handling session, try watching for signs of relaxing on your lap as you are handling them; they may raise their rear end when you pet them, they may unclamp their tail from being wrapped tight around their hind legs, they may move/adjust their feet on your lap to get more comfortable and they may rub their face along your scrubbling hand when you pet their cheeks. When they show you these relaxing signs, loosen your grip on the scruff hold, scrubble it as if you never really wanted to 'hold' them there and just make it part of the handling process.
You have reached a crucial and pivotal point in releasing the kitten at this stage!
At this point, you still need to watch the kitten’s body language because you won’t have control of them when you release the scruff-hold and you need to continue to make this a good experience for the cat. Use both hands to lightly pet and scrubble the fur. You may still want to stop the attention before they are ready, but you can watch to see if they are asking for more attention. You can let them get up from your lap and leave of their own accord. You can also ask them to come back by wiggling your fingers in invitation to come back and step onto your lap so you can rub their face/cheeks with your fingers. Maybe just hold your hand up and let them rub their face into it. You can hold your hand to the side and wiggle your fingers in invitation for them to follow your hand off your lap for attention and then lure them back onto your lap.
All of my cats learn that wiggling fingers means petting and scrubbles, come and get it if you want it. Some will even rear up to push their head into our hands or come running from across the room when they see the finger-wiggle signal.
When this stage has been reached, I am ready to progress for much closer handling techniques. I will sit down, pick them up and hold them to my chest, upright and also on their backs like a baby if they will allow it. That progresses to lifting them from the floor and onto taller surfaces, like the toilet lid, the bed, the counter, my lap when I am seated, et cetera. Little by little I will hold them in the 'lift' for a bit longer and longer. I can feel them struggling to get down/away but I just hold them firmly as I slowly lift them and place them where I want. It is a direct lift: floor to chair. Then I ignore the cat. I don't look at it to see how it is reacting, I just do it, it is matter of fact, then it is done and "no big deal". As I progress, I hold them in the 'lift' for incrementally longer periods before setting them on the surface.
Again, the goal is I do not want them to try to dart fearfully away from me when I set them down. I want them to take the time to process what happened and to understand that nothing bad happened while I was lifting/holding them and it was okay for them to allow me to do that. I want them to not struggle and learn that I will lift them and I will let them go, it isn't a big deal.
From there I progress to picking them up and holding them while I stand, then we progress to me holding them and walking a few steps with them. I hold them firmly, even if they struggle, and then lean down and deliberately place them on my bed, petting and ruffling their fur until they relax and realize nothing bad happened and I praise them lavishly for being so 'brave'. I try to never let the cat ‘escape’ and leap away from me. I want to set it on the bed so it knows that is where I put it and I will always set it down when it indicates (struggles) it wants down. To work past this in boot-camp fashion, I will slowly increase the amount of time I hold/carry them and be slower and more deliberate in setting them down.
Another area I work on is to get them to allow me to kiss them on the top of their heads, back of shoulders and eventually their nose. When the kittens are comfortable around me, I will duck down and give them a quick kiss before they even realize my face is near them. You must be very careful in this stage, because if you have pushed too fast, too far in this area your eyes will be in great danger if the kitten becomes frightened or defensive. I usually begin letting them get comfortable around my face by laying my head down (floor or bed) at their level and allowing them to approach if they wish, before I start pushing my attention on them and getting my face closer to them.
One of the last things I do with my fosters is to treat them a little roughly. I will handle them quickly, a little fast, maybe not so careful but never cause them pain or drop them. I also move a little quicker, more unpredictable and speak and laugh louder and abruptly to get them used to those motions and loud sounds. I need to get them ready for the public and children to be able to handle them, so that is why I treat them casually just before they go to the adoption center. I want those familiar and not-so-careful handling techniques to help them not be frightened if they are handled in that manner.
Taming and socializing adult ferals or indoor cats who need more socialization skills:
The above techniques also work with adult ferals, including ferals who are outside and coming to feeding stations and indoor cats who have been poorly socialized. It does take longer to work up to getting close to the outdoor feral cat and in getting the cat to learn that handling can feel good and does not need to be scary, but it can be done.
Almost all of my adult cats were tamed OUTSIDE before they were allowed inside, so the process took much longer than it did with kittens. Malibu took 5mo from TNR to letting me touch her fur for the first time and Pretty took 14mo from TNR to that first touch. Both are now happy indoor/outdoor (mostly indoor) cats who follow me around the house, lounge on my lap when I sit and snuggle with me when I sleep.
Same rules apply: Advance/Retreat. You need to advance to make progress, but you need to retreat before you've reached the maximum tolerance level.
Begin by sitting near the cat and push closer each time until you are touching them. Sometimes I put them on my lap and will hold them by their scruff and scrubble/pet with the other hand. Again: "No big deal". Then I will set the cat away from me and ignore it. I don't want the cats scooting away from me fearfully, but I want them to know I was holding them and I set them loose again. When I am handling them, as soon as I feel the cat relaxing even a little, I loosen the scruff hold and scrubble their neck to 'remove the memory' of the hold and let them leave my attention/lap as they wish. No big deal and I don't keep looking at them to judge their reaction.
I want them to learn I will handle them and let them go, I will not keep them against their will forever. The signal I am looking for when handling them is small signs of relaxation and I try to reward that by lowering my handling intensity.
To get cats used to being handled/picked up, I begin by picking them up from the floor and placing them immediately on a low surface (cat-house, coffee table, couch, chair). I can feel them struggling to get down/away but I just hold them firmly as I lift them and place them where I want. It is a direct lift: floor to chair. Then I ignore the cat. I don't look at it to see how it is reacting, I just do it, it is matter of fact, then it is done and "no big deal". As I progress, I hold them in the 'lift' for incrementally longer periods before setting them on the surface.
How to Handle Cats Who Are Reactive-Aggressive:
You will have to be patient and consistent, but a cat can be 're-programmed'. It seems some cats want attention and loving, but they don't know how to respond to it. You can help with this by beginning easy-loving-petting sessions often throughout the day and doing it for very short durations. Some cats are reactionary due to over-stimulation and this is what I look for when handling them: Watch the cat’s body language. Most cats will 'warn' you before they strike, though sometimes the warnings are very subtle and can come very quickly just before the strike, so it isn't very much time for you to react to the warning before you are struck.
Watch the ears, are they flipping forward, sideways and back? Are they flattening down? Is the cat turning their head to look directly at you with an aggressive look (ears and whiskers forward, eyes wide) or is the cat turning their head to look at your hand? Are the cat’s eyes darting around or the pupils dilating wider or fully open? Is the cat slinking their body away from your touch? Is the cat rippling their skin after your hand has passed over their fur? Is their tail tapping, flipping or thrashing?
All of these can be signs that the kitty is getting over-stimulated and may react. Retreat and give the cat a break before continuing.
To help a cat get past this, you can begin petting lightly or scrubbling your fingers into the fur of neck, shoulders and cheeks. I would mostly pet only the head/shoulders before venturing down along the back and I would certainly wait until they are responding positively with those offerings before trying to touch their sides, belly or feet. The best times to pet are when they are feeling sleepy, not when they have just eaten, been playing or are about to play. Always stop petting before they are ready for you to stop. Leave them wanting more and do not give them the chance to get irritated and swipe at you.
I also want to mention play:
Play can be used to distract a nervous cat and allow them to focus on something to help them combat the nervousness of a situation. I feel playing is a very important part of bonding with a cat, though it would be best playing with toys that keep your hands away from their sharp bits. I like to use wands with string, feathers or other toys on the end and laser lights to give the cat a rousing good cardiovascular workout and keep your hands safe from playing claws. My cats also like to have soft/plush toys tossed over their head for them to leap and catch or chase down the hall. I do not encourage any playing with people's body parts (fingers, hands, feet).