Tips to Socialize Feral & Frightened Cats and Kittens


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By Alana Stevenson

“Alana, I volunteer for a trap neuter release org outside of Philadelphia, so I spend a lot of time around feral cats. If you are able to provide tips/info to the readers here about taking in/ “rehabbing” ferals, it would be appreciated. I know many people try to open their hearts to all kinds of cats, and it would be great to have guidance that would help them develop a successful relationship with their new pets. Thanks.” – Lisa

Tips to ‘rehab’ and socialize feral or frightened cats and kittens.

© Beth Dayton

A cat who is frightened may behave the same way initially as a cat who is feral. Please read the difference between feral and stray. Some individuals prefer terms such as ‘free-roaming’ when labeling cats. Language is important, and I do believe it is damaging to cats when we instantly label them as feral because they are found outdoors, look uncared for, or are fearful.

If you do have a feral or frightened cat or kitten you are caring for or have taken in, these tips can help.

  • Designate an area or room in your house that is quiet, clean and safe. Too much noise or commotion can be startling for cats.


  • Make this room kitty-friendly by adding vertical territory (cat furniture and platforms that encourage cats to be higher up and off the floor) and by positioning cat bowls, litter pans, platforms and furniture in desirable locations. Read Tips to Have a Happy Cat.


  • Give it time. Have patience. When an animal is fearful, s/he needs time to calm down, de-stress, and trust you. Trust is built, and for fearful, traumatized, or feral cats, it takes time.


  • Position all food, water bowls, litter pans, cat beds and platforms in locations that have nice peripheral or landscape views of an area. See Tips to Have a Happy Cat.


  • Move quietly. Sporadic, sudden, or loud movements — such as heavy walking or quick movements — can be frightening (Think of a spider suddenly jumping, landing next to you, or scurrying across a carpet). Be soothing with your voice and walk gently. Move slowly, yet stay relaxed. Cats dislike loud sudden noises and sporadic movements, especially if they are wary or uncertain, or unfamiliar with their surroundings.


  • Desensitize (which means gradually introduce) feral kitties to your presence. Enter the room or an area the kitty is in and sit down. Read a book, work on your laptop, drink some tea or coffee, write, or mediate. Do not fixate on the cat or try to coax the cat to approach you or interact with you. By being present but not approaching or engaging the cat, the cat will feel more comfortable with you and safer.


  • Acclimate the cats to your voice. Talk to the cats soothingly and/or softly baby-talk to them. For animals, higher sounds (with the exception of distress noises) are associated with nurturing young and courtship within a species. This is why we naturally baby-talk or talk softly to newborns. Lower sounds are associated with aggression or territoriality. This is true throughout the animal kingdom — yes, even for animals who make sounds above and below our hearing range. (It is also a reason why many animals can be initially more fearful of men than women.)


  • Show friendly, gentle, and trusting body-language. Try not to sit or stand so that you face the cat directly or stare at him/her. Being stared at is unnerving for cats. Always look at the kitty, make eye-contact, acknowledge him or her verbally, and then glance away again.


  • Give ‘blinkies.’ Blink intentionally when you look at your kitty. Cats will softly blink at another individual to show gentle motives and friendly intention. Cats do not rapidly blink their eyes the way we do. When your cat looks at you, blink slowly. Close your eyes for one full second, then look at your kitty. Glance away from your cat, blink again, then look back at your cat. Blink again slowly, repeating 2 or 3 times. Look away again. By blinking  softly when your cat looks at you, you will convey that you are friendly and non-threatening.


  • Pair your presence and all exits and entries with food. Even if your cat hides or remains at a distance, leave food and/or treats for your cat every time you enter the room or area. Also put down food and treats before you leave. Wet food, tuna juice, meat baby food, bonito flakes, feline greenies (ocean fish flavor), freeze-dried chicken treats (avoid treats made in China) are examples of foods and treats to try.


  • Restrict access to hiding areas. A feral or shy cat will never acclimate to your presence if s/he is always hiding and out of sight. Block access to hiding spots such as inside the box spring mattress, under the bed amongst boxes and trinkets, or in the back of the closet behind the laundry. In order for cats to be desensitized to your presence, they have to be exposed to you – albeit safely and at a level they are comfortable with. If they are always hiding under the bed or behind a dresser, they will never learn that you are safe or associate you with good things. Cats may absolutely like to hide and borrow under something, but make sure these locations can provide a visible view of you and are easily accessible. Cat domes (enclosed cat beds with an entry) or hideaways on cat trees and cat condos are good choices for providing your cats security and privacy while still allowing them to see you if they choose to.


  • Provide warmth. Cats love soft, warm things to lay down on. Sunny window perches and heated cat beds will provide comfort to make your kitty more relaxed. A cat who is more relaxed is less fearful.


For kittens and young cats

If you are rescuing or housing feral kittens, please keep kittens together and with their mother for as long as possible. Kittens need the social company of other kittens. Mothers of feral kittens are often kittens themselves. Kittens who are weaned too early or separated from their mother or other kittens can show a tendency for play aggression, dislike of handling, and biting. Six and seven weeks is too young for a cat to be taken away from his or her mother or separated from other kittens. Even eight weeks is too young developmentally for a kitten to be separated from other cats and kittens.

When fostering or rehabbing feral or frightened young cats and kittens, encourage them to play.

  • Make sure to play appropriately and in a way that is not intimidating or scary to fearful or frightened cats. When playing with a feral cat, move an enticing toy or string away from the cat. Do not look at the kitten, lean towards him/her or toss or swing the toy towards the kitten. This will only make a fearful kitten more fearful. Instead, read How to Play with a Cat and make a toy move like prey.


  • If your kitten or cat loves play, always associate play with your presence.


  • Always end play sessions with food or treats.


  • Leave small cat toys out, such as toy mice and crinkle balls, for the kittens to play with when you are not in the room. Rotate toys every day or two to make them interesting.


  • Leave dry food out at all times for kittens and cats to nibble at will.


Copyright © Alana Stevenson 2015

See What Makes Some Kittens Fearful?


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13 thoughts on “Tips to Socialize Feral & Frightened Cats and Kittens”

  1. Hi Alana! This is a very usefull post! Thank you!!! I just have a question!!! Since last week I’m fostering a couple of feral kittens, they spend all the day quiet trying to be hide but during the night they are really active and I can’t sleep. I try to keep them bussy during tje day but I have to work a lot and they are still not very receptive with me. Thanks!!!

  2. I adopted a feral kitten three years ago. He has always had issues with peeing on clothing left on the floor like towels or shirts tossed by the bed, and also where the dog tends to sleep. The behavior is sporadic/episodic, which often leads me to believe that he has finally decided to stop and then something happens that causes him to do it again. It seems to coincide with disruption in the house, like when visitors stay or noisy people come over. He’s very finicky about his food, and the peeing might also coincide with changes to his food.

    Now that he his three years old, I’m afraid this behavior has developed into a habit that might not go away. Do you have any suggestions? I don’t think he has health issues, but I have a vet appointment scheduled next week. To rule a few things out, I keep the litter clean daily, recently installed a motion light in the litter box closet, and the cat gets along well with the dog, at least from my observation. He’s still very shy and seems to only trust me and the dog. He marginally trusts my husband and a few regular visitors, but he usually will not let them pet him.

  3. Your best bet will be to speak with your vet as you can give her/him a detailed account of the past few years. Good luck!

  4. I really need Help on this. I have 5 kitties. All rescues. After I moved my most skittish; Magnum seemed to revert back to almost feral. My new apartment is significantly smaller due to all I could afford. All he does is hide. Won’t let Of touch him anymore. Runs if I move while he is out. There was a situation where I had to put flea medicine on him. Pretty much forcing him into a stressful situation. And he bit me pretty bad. The next day putting me in the Hospital for 4 days with sepsis. Since then he’s only come up to me and randomly been affectionate twice. I’m now rarely home. When I am I never see him. He goes up inside the arms of my couch. I have to turn the couch upside down to be able to see him and make sure he’s somewhat Ok. But now he seems afraid of my other cats too. I don’t know what I can do to Help him. It’s a one bedroom one bedroom apartment and 5 kitties. I take very good Care of my animals but I’m at a loss of what I can do to Help him. I will be moving in the next year into a Bigger place with my boyfriend. But we will be adding a dog to the mix also. I love my animals and I want what’s best for them. Please what can I do for my magnum to Help fare his deb’s and make him comfortable??

  5. You need to give your cat time. Be patient. Let him hide, but sit near him and talk quietly. Offer treats. Most importantly, let him come to you, if he wants to. It will take time, but you need to allow him the space he needs. You may also want to consider taking him to the vet to make sure his health is good. Sometimes, if a cat’s personality changes significantly, it may be due to him having a physical issue. It would also be an opportunity to speak to your vet directly about your cat’s behavior.

  6. I have a i year old stray cat who someone burned his tail off when he was 6 wks. old and threw hin in my yard. He has had his tail cut off a nuetured by the vet and is now healthy and happy except when another person comes to the house. He is not just afraid but very paniced and will jump through a screened porch and will not come home until they are gone. He is very loving and self confident when there is noone but me and two other cats. What if anything can I do to help, I hate to see him so terrified/

  7. The simplest answer is to put him into a room that is his space. Somewhere he can stay that has a bed, toys, a place to climb, but can be closed off when guests come by. If you can move him into that area before you let someone in the door, it will help him feel more safe and secure. For people that come over with frequency, you may want to slowly introduce him to them, but, first, having them sit outside the door to his room, then move into the room and sit quietly, and allowing him to make the decision to meet them on his own terms. It is tricky. Check out some of Jackson Galaxy’s videos on YouTube. As an expert, he has some great information to share that may help!

  8. Hi I’m fostering five feral kittens I have them living in the bathroom. They are great with me but when my husband tried handling they took off. Are there things I can do to help prepare them for their new potential homes? No one will adopt them if they can’t be handled. Should I expose them to more? I can’t let them into the whole house as there are too many hiding spots. Thank you for your suggestions/help.

  9. Gail, the article Alana wrote really covers all the bases and has fantastic, proven suggestions. Little things like sitting in the bathroom with them, just so they can get used to humans being in the same place, is really a key to the socialization. Don’t be in a hurry for results. That is probably the single greatest factor. If you find they are not settling and are inclined to follow their feral instincts, it is important to look at a couple of options, like contacting a local farm that may have use of barn cats. That puts the cats in their element, but also give them a job, to keep the barn ratted. However, before you do that, you need to make sure they are all fixed so there aren’t any additional kittens created. Hope that helps a bit.

  10. Do cats get social with other cats like play with them? is it like a thing for cats?
    Why should a cat be neutered?

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