Tame a Feral Kitten in 5 Easy Steps (Scared Kitten Socialization Checklist)

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To be honest, socializing scared kittens is one of the BEST parts of fostering. It is incredibly rewarding to take a nervous, scared little fuzz-ball (or a hissy, swatty spitfire!) and watch a personality slowly emerge from behind all that fear. Once you have a funny, goofy, calm, happy purr machine who melts into your arms, you’ll understand the joy that comes when you tame a feral kitten.

So how do you socialize scared kittens? We have a simple, step-by-step process.  You can use this method and expect success with kittens up to roughly 6 months of age. This process works with single kittens and groups of kittens.

Table of Contents

Step 1: Set up a safe space for an under socialized kitten & allow Kittens to Adjust

Make sure the kitten has a safe place where you can interact with them but they won’t get lost behind furniture. An empty bedroom, small bathroom, or a large crate is great.

You need enough space to be able to spend some time in the room with the kitten, but not so much space that the kitten could get lost in the room. Remove all extra furniture and be sure to thoroughly kitten-proof the area by removing any cords, strings, breakable items, heavy items, delicate curtains, chemicals or soaps, and other potential hazards.

Let the kitten(s) get acclimated to your environment. When you bring them into your house, they are in a new place with different sounds and smells. There are new people and perhaps animals, new materials underfoot, and new furniture towering around them.

Give your kitten(s) a day or so to settle down and get used to everything. This doesn’t mean you won’t interact with them at all at first. Just stay mindful of all the sensory input that they are processing that you might not even notice!

Your kitten may stay hidden in a corner or the back of a crate during this time. That’s okay. Look for signs that the kitten is moving around and settling in while you’re not around. Be sure he’s using the litter box, eating and drinking.

Toys with bells in them are a good idea because then you’ll be able to hear if the kitten starts to play while you’re not present – but this isn’t likely at this stage.

A feral kitten hisses early on in the socialization process.

Step 2: Engage in passive interaction

In this stage, you allow the kitten to get used to being around people. Spend time with the kittens, but don’t force physical interaction past what is necessary to administer medication or keep them healthy. Sit with them and read a book to yourself. Or, read a book out loud to them. Watch a show, write an article, or do other work with them nearby.

Simply hang out with the kitten and let them ignore you and pretend you aren’t there. And they will definitely try to pretend you aren’t there – because your presence is pushing them outside of their comfort zone.

Once a feral kitten gets used to you, introduce other people to do spend passive time with the kitten if you can. As you move through the socialization process, the more different people you can have interact with them passively (and later, actively), the better. 

Step 3: Engage your kitten’s senses (smell, sight, hearing, taste, and touch)

Start to engage them with tasty treats and wand toys. The more you can engage their senses (smell, sight, hearing), and get them out of fight-or-flight mode, the more quickly they’ll warm up to people. Offer super stinky, high value tasty treats while you’re with them.

Wiggle a fun toy and see if you can get their eyes to focus on it. Maybe they’ll even chew it or swat at it. If you have a very thick, plush blanket or cat bed for them, the kittens might knead on it, engaging their sense of touch as well as their instincts to make biscuits.

A young brown tabby feral kitten hisses at the camera.

How to get the most out of each interaction with your under-socialized kitten

Keep it short and positive! Shorter interactions that happen more frequently are more effective at socializing your kitten than longer interactions that occur only a few times a day. If you can play a 2 minute game of wiggle-the-string 10 times a day, your kittens will come around much faster than if you had one 20 minute play session each morning.

Another way to think of it is to keep the kitten in “happy mode”. End each little engagement session while the cats are interested and happy. Try not to push them to the point of overwhelm – you want to leave them, on some level, wanting more! The kitten’s curiosity will be piqued by short, positive interactions.

Even if they don’t consciously understand it yet, the kitten will begin to understand that humans are not scary. They will know that they will be safe after the interactions, even if they don’t know how to react at first. 

Step 4: Quiet kitten cuddles

Hold the kitten in a gentle, quiet location. Start giving her head scratches, pet her, wrap her in a towel (like a kitten burrito!) if needed and sit with her on the sofa for ten minutes. This will help introduce the kitten to new areas of the house. Quiet cuddles integrate her into the natural rhythm of your day. As a result, the kitten will feel a sense of belonging. Scared kittens will be nervous in a new situation, so keep the interaction short and positive.

If you have more than one kitten, do this step with each kitten one at a time. You’ll be able to focus more on each kitten and assess how the kitten is progressing through the socialization process. 

An unsocialized torbie kitten learns to love people using the strategy for taming kittens described on this page.

Step 5: Active play

Once the nervous kittens have warmed up to you, be sure to play energetically with toys with them. Always use very gentle touches with your hands. Many people like to play rough with their cats and kittens. However, that often teaches them to bite and scratch during play. This is especially important for formerly feral kittens who have just recently been socialized. You’ll want to cement that humans are gentle and friendly so that they have the best chance of acclimating to new people and new situations. Active play with your kittens will channel their energy, and give them exercise. The play will regulate their nervous systems. That way they can better assess when to be in flight or fight mode, and when to be relaxed.

In this video, you can watch a foster socializing a very nervous foster kitten for a few minutes in a quiet but stimulating environment.

The Best Time to Socialize Kittens

Kittens really need to be socialized early, ideally before they are 3 months old but definitely before 5 or 6 months old. This is because of the skills they are learning during this crucial developmental period. Kittens that are completely feral can almost always be socialized before 8 weeks, and if you are willing to work hard, often up to 15 weeks or later.

Feral kittens older than that often have a hard time adjusting to people. This is because their behavior has been set during that early time in their life. They will make great outdoor mousers or barn cats though! 

How Long Does it Take to Socialize a Feral Kitten?

Taming a feral or under-socialized kitten can be done over the course of a few days or weeks. Younger kittens will come around very quickly. An unsocialized 3-5 week old kitten will show remarkable improvements within a week when you implement the steps below. An older kitten who is 4 or 5 months old may take several weeks before they are comfortable with people around. However, you should start seeing some progress within a week or two.

Some kittens older than 6 months of age may never become comfortable around people, but this process is a good place to start. By going slowly and intentionally socializing older kittens, you’ll be able to help them find a lifestyle and routine where they are happy and comfortable.

In this video, you can see scared foster kittens being introduced to a new environment – their foster home!

Feral Kitten Socialization Chart

Over the course of 1-4 weeks, you should be able to socialize a young scaredy-cat using these steps. Whether you’ve found a scared stray kitten or you’re fostering with a shelter, here’s an overview of how to turn a nervous kitten into a love bug! The steps are:

Scared Kitten Socialization Chart
  1. Before beginning, set up a safe and quiet environment for the kitten. Set up a crate or a small room free from hiding spots, and allow the kitten(s) to get used to the smells and sounds in your home. Avoid introductions to dogs, unfriendly cats, or loud children for now. Allow the kitten to adjust for about 1 day in the new environment. Check on him, and provide food/water/medications, but don’t force any unneeded physical interactions. This will help to de-escalate the kitten’s overactive nervous system.
  2. Once the kitten has adjusted, initiate passive interactions to let the kitten know you are not a threat. Spend time with the kitten without forcing physical interaction (except for health purposes). Sit with him and read a book out loud, watch a show, or do some computer work. Have others do the same if possible. Periodically dispense treats during your hang-out sessions for bonus points. Spend 1-3 days on this step before incorporating the next step, depending on how shy your kitten is.
  3. Engage the kitten’s senses to help get the kitten out of flight-or-flight and into a most restful and observant state. Start to engage the kitten with yummy snacks and feather toys. The more your engage senses, the more the kitten will be out of fight-or-flight mode. The more time he spends out of fight-or-flight, the better he can assess his surroundings logically and warm up to people. These first three steps may take anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks total, depending on if your kitten warms up quickly or slowly.
  4. Initiate hands-on interactions that are short, gentle, and in a quiet area. As you progress, these brief, quiet snuggle sessions will start to communicate to your kitten’s brain that he is safe around you. At first, the kitten will not want to participate because he will still be terrified. Hold the kitten in a quiet place for a few minutes at a time. Gently wrap a towel around the kitten if needed, or wear gardening gloves if it makes you less nervous. The more relaxed you are, the more you can absorb your kitten’s stress and help him relax. It’s better to keep these interactions short and positive, and do them more frequently.
  5. Engage the kitten in active play. Once your nervous kitten has warmed up, release their energy with active toys.  (Always use gentle touches with your hands.)  Grab a wand toy or ball to engage hunting reflexes & allow him to blow off steam. He will soon realize that when his defenses are down around people, he is still safe!  💜

Kitten Socialization FAQs

What’s the fastest way to tame a kitten?

The more time you spend having positive interactions with a kitten, the faster they will be adjusted to life with humans. If the kitten is young, interact with the kitten multiple times each day. Expose the kitten to as much of daily life as you can by spending time with her and incorporating her care and playtime into your routine. If the kitten is older and unsocialized, the process is the same but you may first need to help the kitten adjust to being around humans. To help the kitten adjust, follow the steps outlined above.

How do you calm a feral kitten?

First, understand that the kitten is scared of you. To calm a feral kitten quickly, set up a safe, quiet environment such as a crate in a quiet room or a small bathroom. Give the kitten food, water, a litter box, and lots of time to decompress – at least a full day with minimal interruption. Then, follow the rest of the steps outlined in this article to help the kitten remain calm in an increasingly wide range of scenarios.

How long does it take to socialize a kitten?

It can take between 1 and 4 weeks to socialize a kitten under 4 months old. The amount of time depends on the kitten’s personality, the amount of time you spend with the kitten, and the kitten’s age (the younger she is, the faster the process will be). An older kitten of 5-6 months may take several months of daily work to come around, and some older kittens with a more suspicious or independent personality or negative life experiences with people will never enjoy being around humans.

Can feral kittens make good pets?

Feral kittens make amazing pets once they are properly socialized. Kittens born to feral cats can be socialized quickly if they are brought into a home around 8 weeks old (they shouldn’t be separated from the mother cat before this). Feral adult cats do not make good pets. Once a cat is older than 8-12 months, it will be very difficult or impossible to make the cat comfortable around humans. This cat is best suited to a life outdoors, perhaps as a barn cat.

at what age can kittens be tamed?

It is possible to tame kittens up to the age of 6 or 7 months. Kittens go through a critical socialization period from ages 4 weeks to 8 weeks. During this time, a kitten is gaining many new skills and lots of independence from its mother. Socialization during this time happens quickly and naturally. After this period, it is possible to socialize kittens, but it becomes more difficult as the kitten gets older.

How do you get a feral Kitten to trust you?

Use food and repeated positive exposures to get a feral kitten to trust you. Sit quietly with the kitten, talk to the kitten, and make sure the kitten understands that you are a source of yummy food and treats. If the kitten will play while you are nearby, use a wand toy to help the kitten decompress in your presence. This process may take days or weeks depending on the age and personality of the kitty.

when do feral kittens leave their mother?

In the wild, feral mother cats will often nurse their kittens until the kittens are between 5 weeks and 10 weeks old. Young, scared, or undernourished mother cats may abandon their kittens sooner in extenuating circumstances. Kittens younger than 5 weeks are unlikely to be fully weaned onto solid food and therefore are at risk if they are prematurely separated from their mothers. Kittens can be intentionally separated from a feral mother when the kittens are between 5-8 weeks old. This ensures that they are old and independent enough to leave the mother cat and stay healthy, while still giving enough time to socialize them well and help them become adoptable companions.

Is 3 months too old to socialize a kitten?

3 months is not too old to socialize a kitten. A kitten can be socialized until about 6 months of age. However, 3 months is past the critical socialization period of 4-8 weeks. Therefore, it may take more time to socialize a 3 month old kitten (up to a month or more of daily work), depending on the kitten’s personality.

Taming & Socializing Scared Feral Kittens

With a little time and patience, young kittens who are completely unsocialized will come around completely and learn to love you! Learning to tame a feral kitten is a great skill to cultivate when fostering! It means you can find wonderful homes for all your foster kittens. And, it’s incredibly rewarding to turn a scared, hissy fuzzball into a loving, purring companion.

How to socialize a feral kitten

Kelsey Madison

Kelsey Madison is a cat lover, fostering enthusiast, part time vet tech & writer. She has fostered close to 300 animals over the last 10+ years, and currently has 3 beautiful tabby cats who love to stick their faces in her morning lattes. She is passionate about helping others develop a deeper understanding of their beloved felines and learn more about fostering.

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