Put a dab of canned cat food on the tip of one finger and hold it near the kitten, and let him lick the food off. With food on several fingertips, you can socialize more than one kitten at a time.
Hold a tablespoon of dry kitten food in the palm of your hand, and lower your hand near a hard-surfaced floor. Slowly open your hand and let the kitten kibble pieces drop, one at a time. The kittens will come running to play with the pieces of food. Flick pieces of the food towards kittens with your fingers.
Plastic bottle caps are popular toys with kittens, and if you put your finger in a lid to spin it on the floor, the kittens find its sight and sound truly irresistible. They will sit and watch, occasionally reaching out to pat the lid, as long as you’re willing to spin their toy.
Open Paws, the mental health protocol for animal shelters, states that having five different caregivers a day is necessary for optimal kitten development. Knowing this, I have tried to find friendly visitors for kittens in the past, even paying babysitter wages to animal-loving neighborhood teens willing to visit my kittens.
Caring for a recent group of eight-week old kittens with upper respiratory infections and ringworm, I needed to limit their interaction with additional people. Doing so was easier and better for the kittens’ health, and prevented volunteers’ exposure to ringworm, but still left the kittens needing daily ‘enrichment activities.’ Here are some ways I exposed the kittens to novel people and experiences.
Occasionally I would take a single kitten on errands in the community, in a small carrier. They got a chance to see bank tellers, gas station attendants and pet store salesclerks. When they were healthy enough, they could be wrapped in a baby blanket and held by one or two people before heading home.
Keeping a radio tuned to ‘talk’ programming in the kittens’ room was a way to expose them to a variety of human voices. One of our favorite stations is Catholic Radio, where the rosary is chanted at times. National Public Radio is also a favorite, especially the BBC News late at night. I wonder if the kittens will always have a love for British accents?
My favorite way to expose the kittens to new people is to impersonate new people. ACTING! Changing my appearance with hats, glasses different types of shoes and clothing and even perfume gave the kittens ‘new’ people every day. One particular ugly green hat seemed to be the kittens least favorite disguise, and they started out being ‘all eyes’ when I would wear it. They did adjust to it with time.
One sign that kittens are feral is the way they hold their bodies and tails. Feral kittens seem heavier and harder to lift than tame kittens. It’s as though they ‘ground’ themselves to prevent being picked up. With practice this will not be as noticeable, and it is a measure of their improvement when they don’t resist being picked up. Feeding times are good opportunities to gently lift the kittens and put them back down.
Feral kittens also hold their tails between their back legs very tightly. I have taken a cue from the Dog Whisperer, who adjusts dogs’ tails to make them feel more confident. Stroking the kittens’ tails and holding them gently extended from their bodies seems to allow the kittens to feel more relaxed and friendly. When you scratch a kitten near its tail and she stretches up and raises her tail in the air, it is a sign of growing sociability. Time to celebrate!