Taming a Feral Kitten: First 24 Hours

December 17, 2022 at 8:08 pm (Uncategorized)

About once a week, I dream that, for some unusual but compelling reason, it is my moral duty to take in a stray kitten.

Last Sunday, in Cooma, my sister was sorting books in the shed of St Paul’s Anglican Church (our mum is the priest there) and she spotted a kitten and its mother. The shed is an old wooden structure with a gap under the floorboards. My sister left food and water and then came back to the rectory and told me about it.

We went back to see if we could catch them, and then stood around in the shed like fools, knowing there was no way we could get under the floorboards. Then she spotted the kitten watching us from behind a piece of wood and, between us, we caught it and put it inside a shopping bag.

Catching A Kitten

Fact #1: Catch a feral kitten, and you will be sliced up and peed on.

Catching the kitten left us bloody and shocked. That tiny little thing was strong, fierce, and startlingly effective at both shredding our flesh and jerking sharply from side to side in an attempt to escape. In its mind, this was a fight to the death—and it very skillfully and wholeheartedly used its millennias’ worth of killer instincts as well as nature’s gifts of needle-sharp teeth and claws.

From beneath the floor there was a long, low growl that lasted several minutes.

There was exactly zero chance that we’d catch the mother. Apart from anything else, we weren’t sure we could win that fight.

Sidebar: I later organised for a humane trap and desexing for the mum. My own mum wants to train her as a barn cat—feeding her etc but not having her in the house. Cats are terrible for native animals, but they’re also terrible for rats and mice so as long as the feral cat population isn’t growing the mum doesn’t have to be euthanised.

We never saw or heard any other kittens, so it looks like there was just one (or that only one survived to this age).

It’s very unlikely the mother cat could ever be tamed—but her kitten is another matter.


Does it Need its Mum?

Fact #2: A kitten under three weeks old will probably die if you take it from its mother.

Fact #3: Kittens die a lot even under the best care. The younger they are, the less likely they are to survive. Most are better off left with their mother if they’re under four weeks old.

I have a fair bit of experience with young cats, including kittens under six weeks old (responsible cat breeders will usually insist on keeping kittens with their mother until 12 weeks old these days). I was pretty confident the kitten was at least four weeks old. Here are some signs to look for if you’re ever in a similar position:

If its eyes are closed, it’s under 2 weeks old. It definitely needs its mum.

The ears perk up and look ‘normal’ at about three weeks. It is also walking at that age, and its belly does not drag on the ground any more (as they do for extremely tiny kittens).

If the kitten is beginning to explore its environment, use a toileting area/litter box, and wash itself, it is probably four weeks old. That’s also the age where it will stick its tail up in the air when it feels comfortable or curious. And that’s also the age that it starts to be weaned.

Here are some Ragdoll kittens at four weeks old:

My sister was nice enough (and smart enough, because SHE has a real job) to let me be the kitten’s primary carer, and take it to my home. It was a Sunday so most animal places were closed—plus we were in Cooma, where the RSPCA no longer technically operates. The only advice we got (by phone from a 24/7 emergency vet in Canberra) was, “Don’t touch it, and don’t let any other cats touch it.” This is good advice, as far as it goes.

We let all the kids look at it (from a safe distance of a couple of feet) but not touch it.

Fact #4: A shocking number of kittens are killed by kids under age eight. The tragic fact is that kittens are small and dumb and kids are forgetful and unco. So kittens get stepped on/accidentally kicked/etc and the tiniest mistake kills them.

Food, Water and Temperature: The Keys to Survival

My sister went and bought kitten food. I advised her to get a heat pack as well, and the most expensive kitten food she could find as some cat food is pretty rubbish. She bought “Farmer’s Market” brand kitten food, which was the only one that said “0-12 months”. It had small tins of meat “mousse” (extremely soft, like human baby food). She also bought some kitten milk, which was great as we weren’t sure if it had eaten solid food yet.

I put a shallow dish (actually a plastic lid) of water in a box with the heat pack, plus an especially stinky dress of mine (so it could get used to my scent while staying warm and comfy). I put a quarter teaspoon of the food in another lid which I placed inside the box too, and then got some in its mouth by bringing the spoon close enough that it hissed—and putting the spoon in its mouth with a tiny bit of food on the end. Then I left it alone. When I came back, the food dish was licked clean.

A lot of cats have diarrhea if their food is changed, which can be deadly for a kitten, so I gave it very small portions every 3 hours and usually mixed them with the milk to keep it as similar as possible to what it was used to.

I named it Machiavelli. I’ve thought for a while that Machiavelli was a good cat name, but it’s also not good enough to live with for twenty years, so this was my way to remind myself that it wasn’t going to be MY cat.

Once we were home, I set up my shower with all the basics: A nice thick bath mat, for comfort and warmth; the heat pack; an upturned lid with milk; another lid with food, a makeshift litter box; and a makeshift ‘cave’ for it to hide inside (which it LOVED).

I soon stopped using the heat pad as it didn’t particularly care about it one way or another.

When Zoom was six weeks old, she was still unable to regulate her own body temperature, and needed a hot water bottle or human body warmth basically all the time. She nearly died. Most breeders have an incubator for that reason—the slightest draft can kill kittens. Usually it’s not an issue at six weeks, but Zoom was the runt of her litter and probably didn’t get as much human care as she should have received from her previous owner.

I put food out for Machiavelli about three hours after his first feed, and again used a spoon to make sure it knew what was happening (this time I used a plastic spoon so it didn’t break its teeth with the ferocity of its attack). And… it sat on my lap, unrestrained, and purred.

So we passed our first major training hurdle in a matter of hours: it was no longer trying to kill me. I was shocked at the speed of the change, having expecting to work carefully with him for weeks.

I noticed two white dots on its back and three black dots on the tip of its tail, and changed its name to Buttons.

For some reason he didn’t eat the rest of his food (to be fair, he hadn’t used dishes before), so three hours later I gave him fresh food and milk and hand fed him. Liquid is more important than food, so I gave him the milk first, using a child’s Panadol syringe (he licked it off the end bit by bit). After eating, he even played a little bit—sweet little bops of a sheathed paw, which was QUITE different to our first meeting.

Communication: How To Stop Scaring It To Death And To Become Friends

Step 1: Give it space. When we first caught it we mostly left it alone, in a fairly small box with the lid closed—a similar environment to the shed where we found it, but smaller (which most cats prefer if they’re feeling unsure).

Step 2: I taught it my scent by putting my own sweaty clothing in the box for it to sit on.

Step 3: I gave him slow blinks, as cats do out of respect for one another. This definitely made a difference as he blinked back.

Step 4: I meowed at him. That was when I could see him trying to figure me out—I had become a puzzle, rather than a monster.

Step 5: Food. Yeah, that’s the most important one. By, like, a LOT.

Day 2: Time for the Vet

Now that we were (mostly, arguably) safe from its teeth and claws, we needed to know more about what other threats it might post to me, my kids, and my other cats. And, was it a boy or a girl???

The vet checked it for medical issues and gave it stuff for fleas and worms, then gave it a shot (can’t remember what that was for), and told me it’d be safe for my kids in 24 hours (giving time for the worm tablet to be fully effective, as worms can infect across species—and he was pretty darn safe already, but I might want my family to do a human worms course anyway). But if he has feline AIDS he could pass it to my cats by either blood or saliva—so that’s still a concern.

The vet also said there was no point reuniting him with his mother as he doesn’t need her physically, and psychologically she would only teach him feral behaviour (in fact my own cats might do a better job of helping socialise him).

Did you notice the pronoun? Yes, he’s a boy!

He was perfectly calm with the vet (having apparently decided that all humans are just fine now), and even explored the area.

I told my kids they could now pat him, but would have to wash and sanitise their hands afterwards. Lizzie went for it, and Tim declined. Buttons really wanted to both snuggle and play, so we introduced a cat toy (that I knew my cats loved—so he could start to get used to their scent, and vice versa).

Thus ended Buttons’s first 24 hours in my care.

Here is a very quick (yet long as it’s barely edited) video of Buttons from his first day or so:


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