A Guide to Socializing Older (Fractious) Kittens
Summary: Fosters are often called on to help increase affiliative behaviors, and decrease distance-increasing behaviors in older kittens that are showing signs of being undersocialized. This article explains what this process looks like for kittens who are outside what is usually considered the window for socialization. It covers environmental management and preparation, positive reinforcement using food, desensitization to touch, and the importance of giving kittens choice and time to process.
It is generally understood that a kitten’s socialization period is between 2 and 8 weeks of age. In overcrowded shelter environments with limited resources, that socialization period can act as a decision-maker. If the kitten is within that time frame, send them to foster or make them available. If not, TNR or a barn cat program is the best-case scenario. Most literature on feral kitten socialization suggests that kittens older than 8 weeks up to 6-8 months old, or even adult cats, can still be socialized and adopted, but they need more time and experienced attention.1-7
While there are resources on socializing feral kittens under 8 weeks old, there is little to no information about socializing those older cats. More research is needed on if and how to attempt socialization for these kittens but, without immediate guidance, the general population lacks the knowledge to responsibly explore the possibility of successfully socializing and adopting out older feral kittens.
Definitions and the importance of fosters
A feral kitten is one who has had no interaction with humans and could be compared to a wild animal. They are typically born of feral cats, and either raised in an outdoor colony or trapped and brought to a shelter or rescue. Stray kittens and cats, in contrast, have been socialized to people in the past, although many lose their affinity for humans as they spend more of their lives outside.8-10
If you are unsure of the kitten or adult cat’s history (especially if there are signs of sociability and interaction), my preferred term is “fractious.” A fractious cat is one who is unruly and acts feral but shows signs of connecting with humans (approaching, allowing petting, playing, etc.).
The first question to address is whether to try socializing at all. If a kitten is within the sensitive socialization period, they should absolutely be placed in foster care and socialized. If the foster resources are there, socialization can also be attempted with older kittens. Fosters are crucial here because, even for kittens outside of the sensitive socialization period, a few days or a week can help us learn if a cat is truly feral or a fractious cat capable of learning that humans are safe.
It is essential to have patience and consistency for best practices in feral kitten socialization, especially for older kittens. The following is intended as a guide for caregivers regarding the most effective practices that help alleviate stress and encourage the kittens to choose to engage in interaction with people.
The environment plays a key part in any cat’s wellbeing, and change can be incredibly hard on them, with the chance of relocation stress causing behavioral issues such as increased aggression and inappropriate elimination.11 A fearful, fractious cat in a new home needs to have a secure environment prepared for their arrival. Before the kittens arrive, set up a small kitten-proofed room. This can even be a bathroom if need be. The space should be big enough for the essentials (litter box, water, den, food, scratching surface) but not so big that the kittens can escape your line of sight or reach. Another option for this is a tall, large caging unit, similar to those used for ferrets. This can help get the kittens comfortable with a similar environment that they’ll be in while up for adoption at a local shelter, though the goal is to allow for more free-roaming space over time. If you choose to use a full room rather than beginning in a cage or crate, be extra careful about kitten-proofing, blocking off any possible escape routes or hiding spots that are not a hide box or den, and create an airlock system around the door to prevent escapes. Beyond standard cat necessities, other helpful tools to have in advance are:
- Squeeze tube treats
- Kevlar sleeves or other gloves
- Sunglasses or other glasses
- Wet food
- Target stick
- Back scratchers
- Calming cat music
- Pheromone diffusers such as Feliway
- Hide boxes/dens
Setting up the socialization process for success
Socializing singleton kittens is an extreme challenge that should be avoided. When at all possible, kittens should be paired or fostered in groups. While cats are solo hunters, they are in fact a social species that does best as a group. It has long been known that cats are capable of observational learning, i.e., if they watch the behavior of another cat, they can learn to repeat the behavior.12 Socialization with other cats and kittens helps kittens learn to modulate their responses (i.e., learning self-control).13 If possible, having a semi-social, confident kitten about the same age can be helpful in setting an example for the less social kittens, though individual time should be given to each kitten to assure that everyone is progressing. It can also help if you have another cat-friendly cat in your home that you can slowly introduce. In that case, have a barrier of some kind, such as stacked baby gates, so the kittens can see you interacting with your cat. If the kittens show interest, you can work on slowly introducing them to your cat.
Decompression and introduction to touch
Allow kittens a solid two to three days with minimal interaction. Assess the kittens’ body language and response to your presence. Try to keep the room as quiet as possible with only very quiet talking or calming music. There are noise machines that can do this, or you can find one of the many videos and playlists on YouTube. If using a tall cage, it can help to create partial cover with a sheet to prevent overstimulation. If you notice that the kittens approach the front of the cage or watch you with relaxed body language or even approach, you may be able to advance to future steps. Each kitten is an individual and advances at different stages.
At the end of these two to three days, try to introduce your scent and the potential for touch by offering the end of your glasses to sniff. You carry a lot of your scent behind your ears and this is a less threatening, safer way to introduce your scent and build toward the act of reaching your hand out for petting.14 You can also use retractable back scratchers or a toothbrush to safely touch and build toward petting while keeping your hand at a safe distance during this challenging time. Toothbrushes are used frequently with very young kittens to mimic the feeling of a mother cat grooming.
Using mealtime as your biggest asset
Food is the most important part about socialization. Always be present when the fractious kittens eat. Have scheduled feeding times and do not free feed. Even if you plan on also feeding dry food, wet food typically takes longer to eat, which keeps the kitten near you longer and promotes licking, which is a self-soothing behavior.15
Begin by simply placing the food bowl toward the back of the cage or room, and sitting on the ground as far away as possible. Speak to the kitten, but quietly. Each day, you can move the food dish closer to you, as long as the kittens are still eating. Never let a kitten go a full day without eating. Leave a small amount of food overnight for a kitten who refuses to eat and, if they still aren’t eating, assure that the kitten is cleared medically and reassess if socialization is the best route for that kitten.
Build toward touching the kittens while they are eating. The Kevlar sleeves or gloves can be incredibly helpful here to protect from scratches. Start by holding your hand next to the bowl or near it while the kitten eats. Hissing is normal; it is a sign of fear and that you may be moving too fast. As long as the kittens will continue eating, slowly and gently attempt to pet from the top of the head, and near the cheeks. You can progress a little further along the body if the kitten is comfortable, with relaxed body language. This can then progress to lifting the kitten for a second while eating, then touching the paws, then fully holding the kitten while they’re eating. It can also help to hold the food dish in your lap once the kittens are comfortable enough to approach. This empowers the kitten to make the choice to approach and eat by you without forcing the situation. “When you give them the choice, you gain their trust.”16
The importance of playtime
One of the biggest mistakes made when fostering fractious kittens is to only focus on handling, which is a very human-centric concern. Of course, it’s a huge part of socialization, but the source of the issue is the kittens’ fearfulness. You can train a kitten to tolerate handling, but that won’t necessarily improve general psychological well being. This is where playtime makes an impact. In my work with clients, I’ve found that play is one of the most neglected aspects of cat care, and yet its importance is mentioned in nearly every reputable source on cat behavior. “Playtime helps ease tension between cats, helps intimidated cats become more confident, build positive associations with previously negative locations, strengthens bonds.”17
For indoor cats, play is the activity closest to hunting, which free-ranging cats engage in for a significant part of their day. According to Frank et al., “the expected duration of hunting activity of free-ranging house or farm cats varies from 0% to 46% of the 24-hour day, with an average of 14.8%. The average duration of an excursion is 30 minutes. This means that a normal and sufficiently fed cat should still have more than 3 hours of hunting-like activity per day.”13
Directed playtime can start right after the initial two- to three-day decompression period. Wand toys are key here because they allow you to have some distance from the kitten’s “prey” and your hand, and they enable you to create some intrigue and mimic actual prey. I do not recommend laser pointers, as they do not allow for a physical catching action, which can increase frustration and the risk of developing abnormal repetitive behavior.18
When first engaging in play, expect for the kittens only to visually track the toy — and that’s completely fine! That’s a solid start to play. Everything in the socialization process is gradual and involves baby steps. Visually tracking a toy builds to occasionally reaching a paw toward the toy. This builds to more and more movement until the kitten runs, chases, stalks, and participates in other standard play behaviors. Let the kittens catch and chew on the caught toy, since those moments create a surge of confidence, building a positive association with humans and with the location play is happening. Play can also be a way to lure kittens closer towards your space while maintaining a low-pressure environment and providing agency.
Socialization in phases
A very common question among foster caregivers is, “How long does socialization take?” and there’s really no one answer. It varies depending on each cat’s individual timeline and history, and the process cannot be rushed. The more patient you are and allowing for agency, the better and more long-lasting results you’ll see. My personal experience and that found in the cat town foster program in Oakland, California, is that it takes an average of three months to socialize kittens ranging from 6 weeks to 6 months old, though this is by no means a set rule to hold yourself to. The younger the kitten, the less time it tends to take (the shortest timeframe personally was two to three weeks). This all assumes that kittens are kept in pairs or groups. The more time you can spend in the same room as the kittens after the initial adjustment period, the better. A minimum of two half-hour sessions can set you up for success, but you’re more likely to see faster results the more time you spend in the same space.
Especially while there is so little research and guidance on this fractious kitten age group, tracking is very important. Everything is gradual and you’ll have several setbacks as well as small victories. The more information you gather, the better you’ll be able to track progress and see what works for your individual foster kittens. It’s easy to get discouraged when fractious kittens don’t make the kind of progress you’d like them to in the timeframe you’d prefer. So, instead of setting a time limit for yourself, view progress in terms of milestones. Examples of milestones include:
- Touching with tool
- Holding hand next to food
- Petting while feeding
- No hissing or swatting
- Expanding space
- Visually tracking toys
- Batting at toys
- Chasing toys
- Full body petting with and without food
- Lifting with and without food
- Expanding space
Once you feel confident that you can safely lift the kittens with food or, at least, get the kittens back in the initial small space if need be, you can expand space. I do not recommend opening your entire home to a fractious kitten. Rather, take down barriers within one room or allow the kittens out of the initial tall caging. At this phase, it helps to have plenty of hide boxes and acceptable places for the kittens to escape interaction and feel safe. It may seem counterintuitive, but cats are more likely to come out and be social if they have plenty of options to hide if they feel the need.19 Towels are also useful during this time in case you need to create an impromptu visual barrier or quickly catch a kitten.
Throughout all phases, go slowly and focus on positive reinforcement and enabling the kittens to make the choice to engage whenever possible. Punishing, yelling, squirting water, forcing interaction, moving too quickly, slows the process and only destroys the progress you’ve made in building trust.20 If you find that you’re not making any progress at allwithin the first two to three weeks, the kitten will likely do best as a TNR or barn cat candidate.
One aspect of cat behavior modification and enrichment that is rarely, if ever, addressed in the average home is clicker training. The notion of training a cat is still broadly underappreciated and even not believed. However, clicker training is incredibly beneficial and can help alleviate stress and promote confident, exploratory behavior in cats. This can specifically help fractious kittens to choose to engage in prosocial behaviors with people. A 2018 study in shelter cats found that cats given clicker training enrichment showed significantly more exploratory behavior, a decrease in inactivity, and more time spent at the front of their enclosures after training – in short, they showed more signs of confidence.21
The first step is to establish a reward marker. If you’re working with multiple kittens, choose a different marker for each kitten to help distinguish and maintain individual attention. Once you’ve done this, pick select goals for the individual kitten. Begin with eye contact, mark, and reward. Then mark and reward for stepping in your direction, sniffing you, placing a paw on you, etc. Clicker training to touch a target stick and station training are two other great ways to manipulate positioning and move the kittens without actually touching them, all while mentally stimulating them and alleviating stress and fear by placing their thoughts on something other than what concerns them.
When to say goodbye
How do you know when the kittens are ready for adoption? What do you do to prepare them for the shelter or their future home? These are important questions to keep in mind throughout the entire process as it will help in keeping you goal-oriented as a foster. It’s important not to expect a snuggly adult lap cat from an older fractious kitten. Few adult cats enjoy being picked up, carried, and held, and it’s completely acceptable for cats to need their space and have a more aloof personality.22 Any cat, fractious or otherwise, takes time to bond with their adopters and, especially for fractious kittens, there is a lifelong journey to overcoming initial fears and building trust. Each shelter and rescue has their own set of standards for what they consider an adoptable cat. Good standards for adoption for both the cat and adopter’s wellbeing include:
- No hissing, swatting, or biting
- Can safely be picked up and briefly carried without food
- Tolerate basic vet handling (vaccinations, examining body parts, etc.)
- No escape risk
- Calmly remains within the same space as people without signs of tension
- Can walk around the room, stand up, and sit down without the kittens panicking or trying to escape
- Multiple people can work with the kittens with no significant increase in aggression or other undesirable behaviors.
When possible, make fractious foster kittens available from foster. This prevents them from having to relocate back to the shelter, which is a more stressful environment, even with a shelter’s best efforts to create a calm environment. This also allows potential adopters who see how the kittens do in a home environment.
- Alley Cat Allies, “Socializing Feral Kittens.” Accessed 9/14/2021
- Phillips, M. “The best age for taming feral kittens.” Animal Alliance NYC, accessed 9/14/2021.
- Austin Pets Alive “Guide to socializing shy or fearful kittens” American Pets Alive, Urban Cat League, accessed 9/14/2021
- Feral Cat Focus (2013) Colony management – socializing feral kittens. Accessed 9/14/2021.
- Shaw, H. (2020) “Helping feral kittens become friendly” Kitten Lady Blog, accessed 9/14/2021.
- Falconer, J. “Ask the expert: Socializing kittens.” HumanePro, The Humane Society of the United States. Accessed 9/14/2021.
- Peterson, N., “Feral Kittens.” Fear Free Pets, accessed 9/14/2021.
- Alley Cat Allies. Feral vs Stray Cats: An Important Difference. White paper, last accessed 10/9/2021.
- Gosling, L., Stavisky, J., Dean, R. (2013) What is a feral cat? Variation in definitions may be associated with different management strategies. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery 15, 759-764.
- Slater, M.R., & Shain, S. (2005). Feral cats: An overview. In: The state of the animals III (pp. 43-53). D.J. Salem & A.N. Rowan (Eds.), Washington, DC: Humane Society Press.
- Reeder, J. (2021) Ways to Make Your Cat’s Move to a New Home Safe and Stress-Free. Fear Free happy Homes, accessed 9/14/2021.
- Herbert, M. J., & Harsh, C. M. (1944). Observational learning by cats. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 37:2, 81–95.
- Frank, D. and Dehasse, J. (2003) Differential diagnosis and management of human-directed aggression in cats. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice 33:2, 269-286.
- Leavitt, J. (2018) Why do the backs of my ears smell? Accessed 9/14/2021
- Cornell Veterinary Medicine, Cats that lick too much. Last accessed 10/10/2021
- Johnson-Bennett, P. (2014) Think like a cat: How to raise a well-adjusted cat – not a sour puss. New York. Penguin Books
- Johnson-Bennett, P. (2020) Cat vs cat: Keeping peace when you have more than one cat. New York. Penguin Books
- Kogan, L.R. and Grigg, E.K (2021) Laser light pointers for use in companion cat play: association with guardian-reported abnormal repetitive behaviors. Animals 11:8, :2178.
- van der Leij, W. J. R., et al. (2019). The effect of a hiding box on stress levels and body weight in Dutch shelter cats; a randomized controlled trial. PLoS ONE 14:10, e0223492.
- Amat, M. Camps, T. & Manteca, X. (2015) Stress in owned cats: behavioural changes and welfare implications. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 18:8, 577-586.
- Grant, R. & Warrior, J. (2018) Clicker training Increases exploratory behaviour and time spent at the front of the enclosure in shelter cats; implications for welfare and adoption rates. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 211.
- Johnson-Bennett, P. The proper way to pick up and hold a cat. Cat Behavior Associates, accessed 14/11/2021
Emily Carl (CPDT-KA, CCBC, FFCP) is the owner of Great and Small Animal Behavior and Training. After years working in shelters and teaching group classes, she now offers private dog training and cat behavior consultations while offering cat nail trim fundraisers and foster/volunteer training for local shelters.