Not only are you saving the lives of these kittens by pulling them from the streets and keeping them out of the shelter, you are helping to develop friendly, confident kittens who will thrive in any adoptive home. While some kittens may naturally be more shy, or have come into our care under-socialized, there are plenty of ways to increase their sociability while in foster. All kittens will benefit from the following exposure:
Noise – A calm, quiet environment is a wonderful and relaxing place for kittens. It is also important to get them used to common noises they may hear in a nosier household. Start with low volume noises at a distance (for example, turn the vacuum on in another room) for 5-10 minutes. Observe the kittens’ behavior. If they are acting shy or get startled easily, reduce the volume and/or distance. If the kittens are relaxed, slowly increase the volume and frequency. Talk radio can also be a great way for kittens to get accustomed to common noises.
Terrain – Have novelty items that kittens can climb, explore, and play on. You can use cat trees, scratching posts, and plenty of cat toys. You can also use cheaper items like cardboard boxes of various sizes, bubble wrap, and paper towel rolls. Just be sure all items are “kitten proof” and do not present a choking hazard. Change out or re-arrange these items daily to keep things new and interesting!
People & Animals – Host kitten parties and invite your friends and family over to play with the kittens. Just be sure everyone washes their hands before and after (especially if they have cats at home). If you have a cat-friendly dog, this can be a wonderful opportunity to expose your foster kittens to dogs (under strict supervision).
Play – A confident cat is a confident hunter. Play time is essential! The best type of play is interactive, so be sure to spend at least 15 minutes twice a day playing with your foster kittens. If the kittens are extremely active, make sure they also take breaks to rest and eat, as kittens who overexert themselves are at risk for hypoglycemia.
Under-socialized kittens should be housed in smaller spaces that minimize hiding opportunities. Avoid spaces with areas you cannot easily access (i.e. under beds, behind furniture, etc.). You can create easy-to-reach hiding spots by setting up cardboard boxes or other open containers.
Handling – Kittens should be handled for many brief sessions each day. Use a small towel or blanket to safely pick up the kitten. This will make the kitten feel more comfortable while also protecting your hands from any bites or scratches. “Burrito wrap” the kitten and hold it gently but firmly in your arms. Ignore any hissing or growling. With one finger gently pet the kitten on its nose, chin, or cheeks. Once the kitten has remained calm in your arms for a couple minutes, you can release it. If you are working with multiple shy kittens, handle each kitten separately.
Toys – Sit as close as the kitten will allow without running away. Use a wand toy (or a shoelace can work well), to entice the kitten to play. It is okay if the kitten does not play at first. Even watching the toy move around is a good first step! Once the kitten starts swatting at and chasing the toy, use the toy to guide the kitten into the open and move across the floor. Never leave string-based toys or shoelaces unattended with foster kittens.
Food & Treats – Use tasty treats or food to encourage shy kittens to approach you. Human baby food (without onion) can be useful if the kitten does not respond to regular cat food. Put a dab on your finger or a spoon and have the kitten lick it off. Slowly, lure the kitten closer and closer to you before giving it the reward.