The urge to rescue homeless, feral kittens is a noble one. Just make sure you understand what you’re getting into. Feral kittens are not the same as strays. Feral cats are wild and distrust people; strays are simply lost or abandoned and are usually tame.
The ideal age to adopt feral kittens for ease of socialization is between 4 weeks and 8 weeks. At this age the kittens are still young enough not to have taken on feral qualities. If the kittens will allow it, bathe them up to their necks in warm water with a few drops of detergent to rid them of fleas. Use a flea comb on the neck and head. If a bath is out of the question, kittens 4 weeks of age and older can take an orally administered flea-relief tablet that you crush into food. This rids the fleas in hours.
Socializing feral kittens is all about the food, said Mike Phillips, veterinary technician and president of the Urban Cat League, on the video, “Tough Love: Socializing Feral Kittens.” Start petting 4- to 8-week-old kittens while they are eating. After they are done, hold them to your chest so they can feel your heartbeat. Soon, they should be playing with you as any socialized kitten would. Every cat is different, however, so it might take some time for your new kittens to become used to you.
Kittens between 3 months and 4 months of age can be socialized, but the process will typically be more difficult. Once kittens reach 6 months, it might not be possible to socialize them at all. Start the socializing process by keeping the kittens in a large crate outdoors — the kind you can fit into as well. Bring food and see whether they’ll eat with you there. Keep trying until they do. You might need to withhold the food long enough so that the kittens are hungry enough to try things they normally would not want to do. Never withhold water, though.
Put some chicken-flavored baby food on your finger. Most cats cannot resist it. You want the kittens to become used to your hands, and putting food on your finger and letting kittens lick it off is the best way. Eventually, try to pet the kittens while they are eating from your finger. This step could take weeks with older kittens. Use the baby food for teaching the kittens to tolerate petting and being lifted, and feed nutritious cat food for regular meals. Try putting their food bowl on your lap to try to get the kittens to approach you.
After kittens have had a good meal, they usually become tired. This is a good time to try holding and petting them. Once they tolerate this, bring them inside. Set them up where they cannot hide, such as in the bathroom. Work with your kittens regularly, and soon, they might play with you and even purr in your presence.
Laura Agadoni has been writing professionally since 1983. Her feature stories on area businesses, human interest and health and fitness appear in her local newspaper. She has also written and edited for a grassroots outreach effort and has been published in "Clean Eating" magazine and in "Dimensions" magazine, a CUNA Mutual publication. Agadoni has a Bachelor of Arts in communications from California State University-Fullerton.