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Chill Out: Tips to Help a Nervous Kitten Relax

Three orange tabby kittens peer out from inside a brown paper bag.

When you think of a kitten, you might picture a playful ball of fluff who wants to be loved. That’s not too far off. But kittens aren’t necessarily born loving humans. In fact, people can seem quite scary — especially to a feral or under-socialized kitten. A newborn kitten may even hiss when they smell us! 

That’s why raising kittens in foster care and getting them socialized to people early is so important. Kitten socialization can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks. This generally goes pretty smoothly for kittens who interact with humans from the start. The process can be harder for kittens who don’t interact much with people in their first few weeks of life.

Community cats — that is, stray and feral cats — often give birth outdoors. Their kittens can have varying degrees of friendliness, but it’s common for them to be fearful of people. Stray kittens who arrive at Cat Adoption Team (CAT) may have had minimal interaction with humans, so proper socialization is key to helping them grow into loving, happy indoor cats.

At CAT, all kittens under six-weeks-old go to foster care. And if an under-socialized kitten comes to us under 12 weeks of age, we want to get them into foster care right away too. Why? One big reason is that the socialization window for kittens is birth until 12 weeks of age. During this time it’s entirely possible for a hissy, spitty, wild kitten to become that loveable ball of fluff we imagine! 

It’s generally best to keep a litter of kittens together, including with their mom, if they are six weeks or younger. But shy kittens sometimes feed off of each other’s fearful energy. In these instances, it may be best to send the littermates to different foster homes for socialization once they reach about six weeks old. Two under-socialized kittens will seek comfort in each other; a single kitten will more easily come out of their shell. This paves the way to bonding with a foster parent, and eventually an adoptive family! 

So how do you socialize a kitten? And if you foster or adopt a more fearful kitten, how can you help them reach their full potential and become a happy human companion?

When first bringing a kitten or kittens home, start them off in a “safe room”  usually a fairly empty small room, such as a bathroom or bedroom. Provide a litter box, food, water, bed and toys, and a few controlled hiding spaces within the room. “Controlled” means that you should be able to access the kitten easily, even if they are hiding. Block access to any deep hiding spaces such as under a bed or couch. 

Spend time together in the safe room without forcing interaction. You can work on your computer, phone, or tablet, watch a show, or read a book. This allows the kitten to get used to your presence. 

CAT provides a New Kitten Handbook that goes into greater detail about setting up a safe room and acclimating a kitten (socialized or not) to your home.

Food is a fantastic tool when it comes to training cats! Offer tasty food in a dish or on a spoon. When the kitten approaches you or exhibits other social behavior, reward them with a treat. Toys are another great training and socialization tool. Wand toys work especially well because they allow for some distance between you and the kitten. And make sure to leave plenty of safe toys in the room too. A shy kitten WILL play when you’re not around!

A Siamese kitten makes a funny face as they're brushed with an orange toothbrush. A tabby sibling looks on nearby.
You can acclimate kittens to touch by using a paintbrush or toothbrush first.

Once the kitten is comfortable approaching you and eating next to you, start getting them used to touch. Gently pet them on the back of the head or neck as they snack. You can use a soft toothbrush or paintbrush to pet them if your hand still makes them too nervous. Like the wand toy, this method provides a little distance between you and them. As they acclimate to the brush petting, slowly begin to try using your hands again too.

Another tool in the socialization toolbox is pheromone therapy like Feliway. Pheromones mimic the natural scents cats leave on surfaces when they rub against them, and they can help make cats feel calm. Diffusers may work ok, but using a spray is good for socialization because you have more control over when and where the pheromones are used. 

As a kitten becomes increasingly comfortable around people, start to directly pet and handle them. It may also be time to start exploring the home outside the safe room. Go slowly and supervise the kitten at first. If you notice your kitten getting startled or overwhelmed, return them to the safe room. Patience is your friend! Sometimes recently socialized kittens adjust quickly to their new homes while others need more time. 

Socialization is key to helping kittens become loyal, loving companions. When you have earned their trust and boosted their confidence, you will be rewarded with a playful ball of fluff who wants to be loved!

About Cat Adoption Team

Cat Adoption Team (CAT) is the largest cat shelter in the Pacific Northwest. We offer adoption, foster care, and veterinary services to homeless cats and kittens.

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