Where we were
On July 18th, 2014, we found a pair of five to six week old feral kittens while walking through our neighbourhood. Feral cats are domesticated cats who have returned to the wild, or the offspring thereof. Feral cats differ from pet cats mostly through behaviour. The two kittens differed in the intensity of their behaviour, but not in the basics. Both of them would hiss and swipe at people if they approached, would run and hide if people moved, and displayed extremely fearful body language: big eyes, frozen stiff bodies, almost no blinking, puffed up fur. Red was the more aggressive of the two, and had to be handled with gloves. Black was physically weaker, and as you’ll see as I go through the rest of this, quite a bit calmer in personality.
My goal was simple: to tame these two cats, making them into good pets, and then finding them a home. Except, what does tame actually mean? It’s very hard to judge progress if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
I used my knowledge of ABA to operationalize tame, specifically, what behaviours are we looking for? What makes a cat tame?
1. Seeking out human company. When left free in a house, does the cat come and hang out with humans, or prefer to be alone?
2. Relaxed body language while being handled/petted. Soft bodies, squinting/blinking eyes, purring.
3. Small to no startle response around typical human movements (habituation). When I get up from my chair to get a drink, the kittens should not flatten and run away.
4. Spending time in main parts of household, not constantly hiding. This is closely related to #1.
So, the next question is… can these (or any other) kittens be tamed? The answer is significantly more complicated than yes or no.
Socialization period in cats
Cats have a critical socialization period, which is a period in their lives in which they learn what is safe and what is unsafe. It is the period in their lives where they learn what is and is not normal, and they build the framework to have (or not have) relationships with people and other cats. The generally accepted critical socialization period for kittens is 3 – 7 weeks, which means (and has been proven through both research and tons of people who socialize feral kittens) that cats older than 8 weeks of age and who have not had mostly good experiences with people are significantly more challenging to impossible to teach the same level of comfort with humans as those who have had good experiences.
However, it’s not impossible. A great deal depends on the cats own genetics. I’ve seen research that has implied that the personality of the father makes a large difference in the kitten’s personalities, and each animal has their own personality as well. Some kittens are shyer, some are bolder. Whether or not a kitten or cat can be tamed and to what degree depends on both nature (their own genetic heritage) and nurture (early life experiences plus the knowledge and training ability of the humans involved).
Genetics, obviously, you can’t change (although it’s probably something to consider if you’re a breeder, as is all the rest of this — you just have it way easier because you’re starting before they have bad experiences with people). Training, socialization, and habituation you can change to whatever degree genetics and your skills will let you.
The Tools in your arsenal
There’s a few general tools in your arsenal here, which I’m going to explain in an extremely simplified way, and then explain what I’ve done so far.
The first step to all of this is ability to pay attention to behaviour, and is the most important and hardest to learn. When there are animals around me, I am constantly watching them to see what they’re doing, and trying to pay attention to how my body language and behaviour affects what they’re doing. I’m not perfect at it, but as it’s a habit that I try to cultivate. Because I pay attention, I can stop what I’m doing before I push the kittens too far, and I become more aware of what they are and are not worried about so that I can use the other tools to modify that. This, more than anything else that you do, will make living with animals both more rewarding, more interesting, and easier, because you can reward good behaviour and nip bad behaviour before it becomes an issue.
A fun test for you while you read. I’ll include pictures of kittens, and you can take a look at their body language and think about where they are on the tameness/explorativeness/good pet scale. Some hints: Look at how open their eyes are, if their facial muscles are tight or relaxed, if their body is balled up or stretched out. In person, I’ve been watching for how they move (skittering about or walking normally), body posture, grooming, and blinking.
Classical conditioning is your first and most powerful tool. At the root, classical conditioning (in this situation) is pairing a familiar good thing with an unfamiliar neutral thing. So, in this case, pairing food with the presence of people, or play with the presence of people, or petting with the presence of people.
Desensitization is the process of diminishing emotional responses to a negative or fearful stimulus, frequently by using classical conditioning. The way to do this is by carefully setting up situations so that they are exposed to a potentially scary thing at small enough doses to not overwhelm them, often by adding in good things, and work to progressively more intense scary things until they, too, aren’t worrisome any more.
Operant conditioning is the process of teaching an animal specific behaviours, and is what most people call training. In this case, a good example is teaching the kittens to come when I make a specific smooching noise by rewarding them with a tasty treat.
Another tool that I have in my toolkit that others might not are ‘good role models’. I have one cat who is afraid of nothing in the universe, loves everything and everyone at first sight, and who has been playing Uncle Nemo for the kittens and teaching them how to play and how to go around.
Step by Step
How have we managed things so far?
Step 1: Tiny room, people visiting.
We started out with the kittens in a small bathroom, with a carrier to hide in, but very limited places to hide otherwise. We regularly brought them food (classical conditioning) and exposed them to us moving around slowly and carefully (desensitization). We also had the kittens eat food in our laps while we petted them, thus linking petting (a neutral stimulus) with food. This worked also as a quarantine method to prevent exposing our other cats to any nasty things that the kittens might have until we could take them to the vet. By the end of the four days they were in the room, their hissing had decreased dramatically, the swiping at people had gone to almost zero, and both kittens could be handled with bare hands without risk to life and limb.
Step 2: Habituation.
Once the kittens went to the vet and were pronounced healthy enough to visit the rest of the house, we set up an empty parrot flight cage in the main area of the house. The purpose of this was habituation — getting them used to the sights and sounds of people going around, talking, phones ringing, dishwashers running, dogs barking (and in our crazy household, parrots talking and flying), etc. This is the step that a lot of feral cat tamers skip, and it is absolutely, positively vitally important.
The kittens were provided with a large basket to ‘hide’ in so that they were comfortable enough, and usually given tasty canned food or yogurt (one of their favourite things) while they were in there.
We proceeded to go about our days as usual. They rapidly, rapidly stopped reacting to the normal noises of the household, and began starting to play with each other. This is when we began introducing them to the other cats, and allowing them supervised time out and about, usually being held or in a lap. They still slept in the bathroom, and when they were on the floor, they would immediately look for a place to hide. However, when they were held in a lap and petted, they began purring. Both of them purred the first time eight days after they were found. They also began entertaining visitors, including their new owners to be.
Step 3: Bigger space and operant conditioning.
10 days after we found them, we moved them from the small bathroom into our spare bedroom, providing them with more space to play (desperately needed) and the ability to start teaching them things. Having more space (but not too much space) gave us the ability to know roughly where they were and find them quickly (much harder to do in a huge house with furniture) but also gave them the ability to choose to interact with us or not.
We stacked the deck in our favour by offering tasty food for coming out from under the futon and dressers, and fun playing. The first few days, any time you entered the room, it was empty, however, as we spent time in there, they would begin to come out and go around. We also let other cats in to play and demonstrate good interactions with humans. They’ve also had visitors in here, allowing them to get used to humans other than us, with most of the visits coming from their new peoples.
Step 4: Increased freedom based on behaviour.
We’ve slowly been letting the kittens have more freedom. Red has continued to be the shyer of the two, and startles much more easily. We have let him wander around on the floor while wearing a harness so that he is prevented from hiding out under something and being impossible to find.
Black has continued to be bolder, so he started with supervised freedom (meaning someone follows around the cat keeping an eye on him).
However, today, both kittens upgraded to lightly supervised freedom in the house — they went around without a person following them, slept in a pile with other cats, went upstairs and downstairs, and did quite a bit of work on learning to approach people and get treats.
Red started by flattening and running whenever someone moved or stood up, however, since we’re sensitive to behaviour, we would freeze when he did so, and he would slowly relax. By the end of the day, I stood up and walked around, and all he did was blink sleepily at me. This is three weeks to the day after we found the kittens.
Next steps are pretty simple from here. We continue to work on the lessons of approaching people and habituation to normal movement around the house, and add in the next factor: dogs. Both of them have been exposed to our dogs romping about while they were in their cage, however, it’s different when you’re on the floor. That will be done progressively as well, starting with our ancient shepherd, Charlotte, and eventually working their way up to our crazy doberman, Noire.
Once they’re good around the dogs and good around the house both with us and with unfamiliar people (which I am guessing will take another week or two), they’ll go off to their new home, at which point I expect that they will immediately regress a little bit. Setting them up for success, I will be loaning them the kitten cage for a few weeks and suggesting that the kittens be set up with a safe place to sleep when no one is around for at least the first days. However, considering their behaviour currently, I expect that they will acclimate much, much faster to their new homes, and in six months, will act like normal cats, thanks to both us finding them before their socialization window closed and careful, ongoing management of their behaviour and environment to set them up for success.
Isn’t this a lot of work?
Yes. Yes it is. It’s a lot of thought, and a lot of small tasks that build up to big tasks. It’s completely worth it, and will be even more worth it once I get fun updates on them living happily as pets in their new home.