Here can you hold this feral kitten for me?
December 27, 2021 10:49 AM   Subscribe

My incredibly caveman bf (now ex) attempted a kitten napping the other day by sneaking up on a pair of feral siblings and putting a sweater over it. He gets it to my car and the kitten is wailing and clawing, meanwhile the other sibling had rounded up Ma and Pa Kitteh plus called in a favor to a couple more and my car was surrounded by the feline equivalent of a crips street gang. I had to refuse to drive off and leave before he would agree to give the kitten back ((cont'd)

I'm just wondering if someone in any range of experience with feral cats specifically can give me the Feral Cats for Dummies crib notes on the
A) percent of probability we would have been reduced to bandaids and bacitracin for months had I drove off ,and B) Feral cat propensity to stay feral vs. Is there a way to domesticate a feral cat? (This is specifically my beef with him because he thinks all cats are domesticated and safe)
P.S. I know this post reads like this problem is what broke us up but it isn't
posted by The_imp_inimpossible to Pets & Animals (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure whether this kitten's... support network (?) makes a difference, but in my experience most kittens can be raised into whatever normal means for a cat.

Cats act differently in different circumstances, so who knows if it would be defensive or hidey or sweet. It would need a checkup and shots from a vet, at least.
posted by Acari at 11:10 AM on December 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

from my understanding all cats are essentially born feral and each kitten needs to be domesticated before a certain age (8 weeks?) or they will remain feral. that is why kitten fostering is such a big thing, so kitties without mamas can be acclimated to humans and get adopted. so I think your (ex)bf was wrong, esp considering the presence of mama cat on the scene.
posted by supermedusa at 11:12 AM on December 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Feral cats can be domesticated with a great deal of patience, knowledge, and effort. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that your ex boyfriend, who in all regards here is behaving like a complete and utter dipshit, is NOT the person to successfully do this task.

FFS you don't just steal a kitten away from its mother and littermates on the street jesus H tapdancing sweet christ. Thank you for putting a stop to some truly cruel idiocy. If you think the cats might remain near where you found them, please contact a local rescue or shelter, or animal control, and see whether they want to/are able to take them in. While you're at it see if they'll take that ex of yours too. Maybe with a good and patient foster human, he too can be domesticated.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:20 AM on December 27, 2021 [42 favorites]

Pretty sure the accepted process is to have a professional trap the mother and kittens together. Start there and only later consider adopting a kitten back from the rescue agency.
posted by freecellwizard at 11:24 AM on December 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

That's risking exposure to rabies, at a time when many hospitals are at capacity. Rabies is in all 50 states.

Here's just one story about wild kittens and rabies and hospital bills.
posted by dum spiro spero at 11:47 AM on December 27, 2021 [4 favorites]

People who do feral rescues and TNR management, like, always try to keep litters together, including the mother cat. Even adult feral cats can be socialized into co-existing with humans, but it does depend a lot on the individual personality of the cat.

When my wife and I first lived together, we adopted a pair of kittens who had been "rescued" from their mother, who was a waterfront cat. The kittens were not especially well-socialized when we got them, but were still young enough that they adapted to life with us pretty quickly. I would never again take kittens from someone who had stolen them from their mother like that, but they were fine in time.
posted by briank at 11:50 AM on December 27, 2021 [7 favorites]

It all depends on the age of the cat and how much socialization it has already gotten. Adults that act completely feral are sometimes previously owned cats gone wild, and after a couple of weeks of being trapped in a house being fed regularly suddenly turn into total affectionate sooks. Your kitten probably got very little socialization so far, but may have gotten some if it is part of a colony that someone looks after. If it already spent a certain amount of time waiting for the human to show up with food it has a leg up on becoming comfortable with humans. If it is too young to have eaten solid food yet and was still being nursed it may be hard to keep alive but should be easy to tame.

The fact that your ex was able to capture it by dropping a cloth on it was a good sign - that means it did not fear him enough to disappear before he got that close. Of course if he trapped it in a dumpster and it was preparing to fight for its life and do its level best to leap seven feet to get away from him you can conclude that it would have been a difficult project to tame it at best.

From the sound of the fight this kitten put up, you might have never domesticated it, because it might have been the equivalent of a young teenager and couldn't overcome its early conditioning any more than you could, if about to spend the rest of your life in an enclosure with bears. It just wouldn't occur to you to start thinking of them as being surrogate mothers. But the key to your answer is how small it was. It might still have been young enough to bond with you. Basically if it was still cute and clumsy and toddler proportions you might have done it. If it was basically a teenager it would have required lots of patience and luck.

If you do take in a feral they usually learn to not hide, but that is as good as it gets. You can never handle them without resistance, and of course you don't torment them by handling them unnecessarily.
posted by Jane the Brown at 11:53 AM on December 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

My partner has a degree in biopsychology with a focus on animal behavior and says: "Young feral kittens are very easy to socialize to human friendliness, at least compared to an adult feral cat. When they're older it's significantly harder, but not impossible. Also, all cats are domesticated, they don't stop being domestic animals just because they're feral; it's a question of whether or not they're socialized to humans or not. Domesticated animals are genetically predisposed to be social to humans but need that exposure/experience to learn that humans are friends and seek them out for companionship. Whether or not taking it away from its mother/litter will be harmful depends on how young it is; under four weeks would be too early to be weaned. Rescue agencies are currently extremely overstrained and if you are able to give the cat a good home and have the time and ability to socialize it properly, it's not inherently a bad thing to take a kitten from an alley rather than hope the rescue agency has room and time to trap the whole family, who will likely be separated in the adoption process anyway."

Now, in this specific instance, your BF was probably in the wrong because it does take effort and he seems unprepared for this if he didn't know enough to, say, provide you an article on the topic to defend his position later. He probably also isn't good at eyeballing cat ages on sight--the kitten was probably old enough to be taken from the mother because it was up and about and running around outside the nest/den, but I suspect he didn't know that. Also, if would have been better to call the rescue agency and ask what they recommend. It sounds like it was an impulsive and rash decision that could have turned out fine, but neither of you knew that in the moment or how to make sure it would turn out well.

But to answer your specific questions: 1) Per the article, if less than 6 weeks, it would have been a few days to a few weeks at most, and 2) most young feral kittens can be socialized; older kittens can as well but it's harder; adult cats it's much more difficult but not impossible.
posted by brook horse at 11:53 AM on December 27, 2021 [8 favorites]

Yikes. Kitten-napping isn't necessarily a doomed endeavor, if you get the right age window and so on. And I've worked with older undersocialized kittens and cats, and some of them will also learn manners when there's food in it for them.

That said: throwing a sweater over a cat to trap and hold it is ... a technique that makes me question your ex's ability to know when to trap a kitten, or to keep a kitten safe and socialize it. (What if it had gotten free in the car? Or worse, between car and home?) I think you did the right thing.
posted by mersen at 11:58 AM on December 27, 2021

Kitten Lady has many good videos (and a book) including info about feral cats and kittens. She rescues kittens and does TNR and other outreach.
posted by Crystalinne at 12:25 PM on December 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

Beaten to the punch on the Kitten Lady recommendation! Here's a video about her acclimating a feral kitten (about 8 weeks old) to human contact.
posted by merriment at 12:42 PM on December 27, 2021

I've had adult feral cats who became housecats, but at that age they kind of have to want to be tamed, if that makes any sense. They're kind of like people in their individual personalities. The itty bitties can almost always be tamed, but it takes a lot of patience.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:57 PM on December 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

I just wanted to say that I love the "now ex" part of this. DTMFA.
posted by intermod at 3:20 PM on December 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

FWIW in certain circles Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is seen as the preferred way to deal with feral cats. All the reasons why are given here - I won't repeat them here, but anyone interested can read that page.

To your specific question, they do go into why adoption is not the ideal solution and TNR is a better one (however the reason has more to do with the systems-level scale of the problem than whether or not one particular cat may be adoptable - some, especially young kittens of the right age, probably are.)
posted by flug at 3:20 PM on December 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

A couple more YouTube instruction videos on how to socialize feral kittens, courtesy of Flatbush Cats:
- Socializing a Spicy Feral Kitten! (2018, 11 min)
- How to socialize feral kittens (2021, 15 min)
They're based in Brooklyn, NY, and I've learned a lot about Trap-Neuter-Return and cat rescue through their videos.
posted by cadge at 3:27 PM on December 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Kitten Lady is awesome and I have learned so much from her free resources.

The perfect Kitten Lady resource for this kind of situation is her "CASA" rubric for deciding if you should try to capture a kitten or not. Basically, you should evaluate the kitten's:
Condition (healthy or not)
Age (old enough to be weaned but not too old to be hard to socialize)
Situation (is the environment safe, is the mom still around)
Ability (can you care for the kitten).

I did not have this resource when I found a kitten in my back yard but found it soon after which alleviated my worry about bringing her in (she was sick, the perfect age for weaning and socializing, no mama to be found, and I was able to nurse her to health and keep her).
posted by misskaz at 4:36 PM on December 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: .to flug:
My specific question was can you domesticate a feral cat. I have a cat in my home who was given to me by a family and I gave her shots and spayed her. I never would take a cat from their feral family nor would I want to spay or neuter one without having resources to do them all. I simply wanted to explain to the bonehead ex why what he was attempting to do was a mistake.
posted by The_imp_inimpossible at 8:12 PM on December 27, 2021

Actually your ex was right about one part: any feral kitten can be tamed and will behave 100% just like a kitten of a housecat. The genetics are identical, it's just a matter of what they learn as they grow up. I rescued a total of 9 kittens from my back alley over the course of a year, all born to two fully feral moms, all are now grown into cuddly lovebugs. The moms were fixed (I worked with a TNR program) and now live on my back porch and still hiss at me when I come to give them food, even after 3 years.

If you watch Tinykittens on youtube some of her older videos show fully-feral moms (like, attacking her when she comes to put food) giving birth to kittens and then all their kittens grow up to be sociable and cuddly. She goes into the process of how she makes sure they're fully socialized but it's not hard, most kittens want to be social with people. He was an idiot for just trying to grab the kitten out of a family, for sure, but plenty of people find abandoned kittens and bring them home and raise them to be housecats. It's very common.
posted by 100kb at 9:17 PM on December 27, 2021 [4 favorites]

All my housebound cats were strays and as such, feral. Yes, you absolutely can socialise them to be okay, even loving, with people. As 100kb and brook horse's friend said, the domestic cat species is a domesticated one (per name). It does take time, and yes you shouldn't simply wrest a kitten away from the mother, so if you had the choice, you're right to not do so. But one of my cats literally got trapped in an engine of a car and transported to my neighbourhood that's about 40 minutes away, as a wee kitten. She's still patently the most disagreeable cat (she hates being handled and will hiss and yowl but is intelligent enough she stopped biting and clawing when asked. well, when i demonstrated the scratches. she's basically sentient enough to feel sorry for me.) but she will snuggle and come home in under 24 hours (we have a free-range culture here), IF she goes out.

so with that cultural background in place:

A) percent of probability we would have been reduced to bandaids and bacitracin for months had I drove off
This risk is overstated. The key characteristic for a feral cat is avoiding threats aka people as much as possible. Unless you guys were being absolute space cadets about a visibly upset kitten and insist on holding it in your bare hands, it's not like it'll go out of your way to bite your ankles. The first thing it'll probably do is find a hiding spot and stay there. All you would need to do is make sure you can free up a spare toilet or a decently small enough uncarpeted room (if possible) and just leave out the food. If the nose is not messed up and they're food-oriented it'll go a long way to comfort them.

HOWEVER, most people are foolish enough to indulge in the adorability of a tiny cat and would entertain their aggressive behaviours - another reason why I say the risk is overstated because esp for a feral cat with siblings they learn quickly enough how not to hurt in the biting/clawing, at the feline level. you just need to teach them human tolerance is much lower. So, I would say don't indulge in play biting/clawing with you as the target. Let them know early on it's unacceptable (cf: my extremely, scarily intelligent cat. she was left too long alone so she never got the hang of it naturally but the older and more attuned to my psychological state the more she understood I was actually hurt, and she visibly controls herself. ETA: the other cat legit will stop when I say the very human, "OWWWWW". And that was in the first week of proper homing).

B) Feral cat propensity to stay feral vs. Is there a way to domesticate a feral cat? (This is specifically my beef with him because he thinks all cats are domesticated and safe)
Generally, all of them, in a safe, calming, and loving human environment, will eventually learn to tolerate your presence. But if your definition of domestic is visibly loving to humans and would actively seek out touch, this is actually an individual cat preference. No amount of demonstrative loving can make a touch-averse cat to love cuddling but if they love you they will tolerate a certain amount (just like people!). The foolish thing is to have an ex-feral cat that wasn't fully socialised to understand human cats have lower pain threshold and insist on literally poking them and throwing a human fit that you're bleeding.
posted by cendawanita at 11:21 PM on December 27, 2021

The question is less of whether a tiny kitten can be raised to be a cuddly/human friendly cat, which it can. It's more that when you remove a kitten who may still be nursing from its mother, it is young enough that it will require some pretty intense and hands-on care not to become friendly, but to continue living. The Kittenlady account gets into some pretty grody detail about what baby kittens need to have done for them. Show your ex the videos of poop-stimulation and see whether he still thinks stealing kittens of indeterminate weaning status in sweaters is a great idea.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:45 AM on December 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've done this, as a preteen. The kitten grew up to be a loving housecat. She was probably around 6-8 weeks when I grabbed her after some patient bribes with food. In my experience feral kittens settle down in less than a week and start behaving no differently from any other kittens. They figure it out quick.

Would I do it now? Nope. But I think being grabbed off the street is preferable to being run over, which is what usually happened to kittens where I lived.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:54 AM on December 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

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